If you read the last couple of things I wrote, you’d probably be like “WHOA! That dude is DEPRESSED!” In reality, I’m not. My life is definitely a lot better than it was in December of 2013 (detailed a little bit here) and I’m mostly content. But I do think the holidays are an interesting psychological time: there’s so much stuff that goes with it in terms of family and drama and politics and commitments, and those can be balanced out by love and alcohol and spirit and cheer and family and togetherness. In short, it can be great — but also a little bit fraught from time to time. (Another way of writing that last sentence is, “It’s life.”)
With all that comes a reality, though: not everything has to be happy.
I thought about this a couple of days ago. One of my good friends, her dad passed away last year; I think it was around February or March. As such, this is the first Christmas without that person on Earth for the group of people who will gather. I thought about a couple of my other friends who have lost parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, whatever-the-case-may-be since 2014 began. Since Christmas is six days before the end of the year, any loss within a calendar year tends to mean that the next Christmas will be the first one without a certain person. That’s heady stuff. It’s hard.
Think about this: let’s say you gather with anywhere from 6 to 12 people at the holidays, right? There’s a very good chance that, amongst those people, 2-3 have lost someone important to them in the past 12 months. If you narrow it down further, there’s a chance that they lost someone they had some real holiday context with — i.e. they had spent a bunch of time, or previous holiday seasons, with the person.
The problem can be this: we have this expectation, possibly because of the consumerism and the songs and the marketing and the notion of family traveling to meet family (which are, admittedly, all easy things to blame) — well anyway, we have this idea that the holidays are supposed to be happy. Joyous. Amazing. Together. You’ve heard these words. You’ve probably uttered them.
We don’t want to talk about the dark stuff, the hard stuff, the depressing stuff — so if we lost someone dear, we tend to put it into a prayer before the meal, or maybe a casual mention over cocktails, followed by a brief period of silence as everyone reflects. I’ve been in these moments and situations. You probably have too. That’s the human condition, especially around how we deal with death.
Here’s a story that, for me, changes some of it. My aunt died in October 2013. It was my dad’s sister. (That’s her pictured in this post.) Sudden illness, very quick, all that. Way before her time. I wasn’t amazingly close with my aunt, but we were close enough that it affected me, for sure. I went for a long walk when it happened and thought about a ton of different things. (Actually, I started this blog about two weeks after she died. That’s not a coincidence, looking back.)
My dad is not an emotional guy. In 34 years of knowing him, I’ve probably cried in front of him maybe once, twice. (For my mom, that number might be in the triple digits. For some of my friends, it could be north of 500. I’m not kidding.) But I knew my dad was close with his sister — it’s his f’n baby sister, after all, and by a wide margin (12 or so years). He always seemed to think of her in a protective sense. He couldn’t protect her from illness and death, though. It had to be really hard on him.
But my dad isn’t the type of person that talks about that type of stuff, at least not outright.
My parents came to Minneapolis — where my wife and I were living — for Thanksgiving 2013. It was about, literally, six weeks after my aunt died. I figured it was an off-limits topic for the most part. My wife and I had been married in March 2013, so it was also the first holidays since that happened. That’s a more joyous thing to discuss, and indeed, we discussed that probably the most (including looking at pictures).
My dad did bring up his sister, though — and a few times, at that. One was during a prayer, as noted above. One was in passing. But there were a few times, a few deeper times, where you could see how he was feeling, how he was processing it, how he was turning it over.
Those moments really resonated with me. I learned something about my dad in them. This is someone I’ve known for 33 years at the time, someone that helped raise me, and in these small moments in a shitty pre-war living room in the Upper Midwest, I was gaining new context and knowledge on him. That’s major stuff, especially for an emotional person whose dad isn’t always emotional.
And you know what?
That all started simply because he was willing to talk about a darker, more depressing issue during a season where we’re supposed to focus on joy and blessings and what we have — not what we’ve lost.
So this Christmas, as you sit around, remember the focus is joy. It is love. But with joy and love come harder things, harder discussions, tougher moments — and they have to be there, because without them, how do you contextualize the joy and the love when that part happens?