We frequent and traditional church-goers can sometimes forget that Christmas is not a joyous and wonderful time for all concerned. In my own ministry, I dealt with two Christmas suicides, and numerous individuals for whom Christmas brought sorrow and deep loss. In one of the New Jersey churches I served, I spent holiday hours each and every year with Agnes. Agnes lost her beloved father at Christmas, was widowed at Christmas, she lost a baby at Christmas, and was in a crippling accident at Christmas — over a fifteen year period of her life. Her story was tragic in both magnitude and scope. Agnes came home from college over the Christmas holidays in 1965 to find her whole family in tears. While decorating the house, her dad — only 47 years old — dropped dead with a massive heart attack. In 1969, recently married Agnes — seven months married and six months pregnant — fell ill at a Christmas party and miscarried. In 1971, Agnes opened the door to two servicemen on December 23 who brought news of her husband’s death in Viet Nam. In 1979, as she headed to Christmas Eve service, a semi-truck lost control, jumped the center meridian, and crushed Agnes’ legs in a massive pile-up. When I arrived in the early 1980s, Agnes simply dreaded the coming of Christmas. Yet, she still came to church, still celebrated the Christian faith, and while deeply sad, she never grew bitter.
“People ask me why I think these things all happened to me, like they think the were done to me. I don’t blame anyone, especially God. God didn’t take my husband or my baby or my dad. But I can’t help associating all the lights and decorations and music with some of the worst experiences in my life. I’m not mad. I’m not hopeless. But I’m not having a joyous time, either. I wish Christmas would just go away, but I also know how selfish and stupid that is.” Agnes had one of the most balanced and healthy viewpoints I’ve encountered. Roger was another story.
Roger was/is bi-polar, called at the time I knew him “manic-depressive.” When Roger was high, he was sky-high. He was the most upbeat, positive, excited person on the planet. The problem was his lows were every bit as low as his highs were high. He became despondent, then mean, then hateful. He would tell me, “I hate Christmas! I hate everything about Christmas!” He would make up filthy, scathing parodies of Christmas songs and belt them out at the top of his voice. He would break ornaments and lights. He would show up with more than a few drinks in him and be basically obnoxious and rude. His wife had left him one Christmas and he never recovered. He blamed God, the world, his wife, the government, the church, and anyone else he could think of for his unhappiness. It all crystalized at Christmas.
Not wanting to bring pain to the families, I won’t talk details on the suicides, but both were young people — young enough that they never really got a chance to see what life was really all about. The raw pain left for both families was immense, and I was recently in contact with one person for whom the pain is as real today as it was thirty years ago when it happened.
I lost a friend on Christmas Eve, over forty years ago, and not a Christmas goes by I don’t think of him. My first girlfriend didn’t die at Christmas, but we had one beautiful and magical Christmas together, and I will never forget it. The bittersweet nature of Christmas isn’t good or bad for me. It just is. But for so many, it is a struggle just to get through another one. I once asked a young man who suffered panic attacks around the holidays if there were anything I could do for him. I loved is answer (he knew I was a pastor): “well, go ahead an pray for me if you want to, but more than that just be patient with me and don’t try to cheer me up or calm me down. And more than anything else, don’t make me feel like a jerk because I don’t get all gooey about Christmas. You can help me most by not trying to help me at all. Just be normal.”
So, as we celebrate Christmas, let’s keep in mind those who suffer through. Let’s pray for them, be patient with them, and try to be as “normal” as we can. The healing magic of Christmas may occur by what we don’t do, instead of what we do.
Thank you for writing this. So many need to see and read it. I personally struggle with a depression every year at this time and have deep memories of much family strife. I’m working on forming new memories, but these are still a part of my life.
I’ve known my share of sorrow at Christmas: parents hospitalized on what would be their last Christmas, a fiancée whose cancer would come back just before what would be her last Christmas – you know the stories.
And yet somehow Christmas came despite what I was experiencing – light in the darkness, hope in the despair, Love when faith seemed impossible – birth pangs of Immanuel!
Peace to you at Christmas! Dick Garland
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