Mourning during the holidays

"Christmas lights" by Alby Headrick

Is talking about death during the holiday season wrong, crude and rude and inappropriate? Someone might accuse you of not being in the “acceptance” stage of grief? Of course, the five stages of grief, as described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) do not apply to the death of a loved one, but that should probably be my next post. Around us, many are bracing for the empty chair at a holiday dinner and those who grieve will still grieve, suffering even worse, alone and in the darkness, if we hint that grief does not belong at the table.

The gift of the five stages of grief is that we can talk about loss, that they have made it acceptable to mourn. Of course, there is still a push to get over it and get on with it, so maybe that is the appeal of Dr. Kubler-Ross’ work and how it became so badly mangled and misunderstood. For now, it may suffice to say that grief is simply the process of adapting to life under new circumstances and the rarity of holidays – a day or a week or so, once a year – means that it can easily take years to grieve a loss within the context of a holiday. Maybe you and your former spouse used to shop for groceries every Saturday morning. A month gives you four opportunities to adjust, to rewrite your life for Saturday mornings. It will take you four years to have the same opportunity for Christmas. It takes time.

The holidays are a celebration, yes, but of what? In my tradition, Christianity, we celebrate the birth of the Son of God, who will later go on to defeat death and to become the light of the world. Muslims will celebrate the birth of Muhammad, the messenger of God. Jews will celebrate the rededication of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. All of these are great things and worthy of widespread joy. These events profoundly improved the lives of those who are connected to them.

I suggest also that an awareness of death sharpens and intensifies our awareness of life. It reminds us of our connection to others and our dependence upon God. Death stands up and screams in our faces, “Stop the petty bickering! Learn, build, feel, do - TODAY! Take care of your body, that you might delay me a bit longer! Act on your love! Live the adventure that is in your heart!” In the words of Steven Jobs, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” Death frees us from useless fears and unwinnable wars and gives us balance. Death is to life what hops are to beer, what rye is to bourbon, what winter is to summer.

In the summer, your bed is too warm and besides, the day is urging you to get out and get moving. In the winter, though? What better place to be with the cold wind howling than curled up in your bed and what a delicious rebellion to defy the alarm clock, to simply rest. We need that rest as surely as we need the work.

During the holidays, as the year ends, we need to rest. We need to count our losses and tend to our wounds. Recognizing our grief is consistent with the dual-process model of grief (Stoebe & Schut, 1995) which, by the way, does apply to the death of a loved one. We grieve by approaching the loss, by listening to it, by feeling the pain. It’s uncomfortable, but so is being in school, or exercising, or surgery, or travel, or any of the other things that we do because they are good for us.

Last week, my church held a Starlight Service of Remembering. It was a simple worship service with the opportunity to speak the names of those whom we have lost. On a Christmas tree in the social hall, we wrote the names of the remembered on stars to hang there. My father and brother share a star, as they do a grave, but so do my friends, Edward Burr and Elsie Allen. During the service, I mentioned some other names – Shawn Duchnowski, Robert Martin, Lee Dennison, Beth Mackie. Names that may not have been spoken in a very long time.

This will be odd, I know, but I keep a small notebook of the names of persons who were close to me and who have died. The rules are simple: if I was close with the person at the time then s/he goes into the book, along with a phrase denoting the relationship and the date of death. There are no celebrities, unless I knew the celebrity personally. It records and celebrates my connections with others.

Father Art Conrad was a Roman Catholic priest who served a parish in a poor neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. He was my friend, but many others also knew him. Far fewer knew Harold “Lee” Dennison, a disabled man whom I served in Pennsylvania. Beth Mackie was, briefly, a classmate of mine at the University of Scranton. We were in the same course, medical ethics, when she was killed by a drunk driver near the university in fall 1990. I strongly suspect that I am the only person who knew both Art and Lee, and I am sure that I am the only person who knew Art, Lee, and Beth.

Does my notebook seem macabre? If so then fair enough, but it also captures the peculiar beauty of my life in my unique connections with others. You probably didn’t know Shawn Duchnowski, a teenage boy who died of a rare disease in Central Pennsylvania in 1997, but I did. His life connected to mine and his name is in my notebook, too, along with dozens of others and not a celebrity among them.

When I walk around the cemeteries at my church, sometimes I stop to read a few names aloud. The church dates back to 1744 and there are names that may not have been spoken for centuries, persons whose lines continue thousands of miles away, with survivors unaware of the distant ancestor buried in this church yard. Speaking the names is powerful, is respectful. I didn’t know those persons, so I don’t mourn for them, even though we are connected by our prayers in our church. They built it and sustained it and left it for me, as I hope to one day leave it to others and perhaps find my own quiet bit of land near the church.

We are all connected, and in this holiday season, when communities of all sorts and sizes reunite in celebration, to bask in each others’ light, we are going notice the lights that have gone out. When we celebrate what we have, we are going to notice what we have lost. It’s natural and it’s normal and I am sure that you know someone who mourns now, perhaps mourns anew a loss not felt since a year ago. I hope that you make room at the holiday table for the empty chair and for the person who remembers.