Merriam Webster Definition of Merry
It wasn’t long at all after the accident that Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie voiced they wanted to go away over Christmas. They couldn’t bear the thought of being at home for Christmas without Sarah. I was so relieved when they said it. I had wanted to run away as well, but above that wanted to do what was best for them. We are a traditions family, we love traditions and are faithful to them every year, predictable like clockwork. To make matters worse, Sarah embodies a high percentage of our Christmas spirit as a family. She loves Christmas, appropriate since she is our Christmas baby born on December 20th. She and Katelyn are the only two who will push through in decorating the tree each year. Sophie and Kristen will bail out about halfway through, curling up on a couch or chair under a blanket instead. But Sarah loves the ornaments, she loves reminiscing over each picture, popsicle stick craft, handprint angel and melt bead ornament. The thought of hanging each ornament and going on with each tradition without our sweet Sarah is unbearable.
A few weeks after the accident we chose a home on Tybee Island to rent from December 22nd through the 29th. Our parents planned to go with us, and some of our siblings and their families would be joining us part of the time as well. Quiet time away from home, on the beach in particular, would surely be healing to our wounded souls. As time passed, though, the girls started expressing concern about being away from home so long over Christmas. They were nervous about the possibility of having so much quiet and stillness there that the sadness would actually be intensified. So a couple of months ago we made the decision to cancel the Tybee Island reservations and book a shorter trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, instead. With all the shows and activities there, surely there would be no time for the boredom that allows the mind to dip into the depths of despair. We had our plan, we would busy ourselves with activities to distract ourselves from the pain in our hearts.
December 3rd we planned to put our Christmas tree up and decorate it. I spent the preceding days trying to brace my heart for the pain that would accompany pulling out each precious memento of years gone by. More than that I was already having to suppress the dread of taking each of those ornaments off the tree to box them up in January. The night finally came. Scott brought the pre-lit tree in and we carefully connected the lights only to discover they would not turn on. We were so disappointed, especially me. The days leading up to decorating the tree had been like the slow climb up the largest peak of a roller coaster. Visions of treasured ornaments popping into my mind like that repeated clicking leading up to the plunge. I had braced for the plunge, I was as ready as I could be and now I’m trapped on the peak. My response, “The tree is broken. Of course the tree is broken. If it can go wrong, it will. This is where we are.”
This reveals something about me. I am trusting God with the incomprehensible, with the death of my daughter. But I’m frustrated that He won’t “give me a break” on the small stuff. It’s the small stuff that I slip into sin over. Through tears I give voice to my frustration, “It feels like if you’re enduring your worst nightmare, then all the small stuff should work!” But that’s not reality, a broken heart earns you no breaks. We have a long list of ongoing fiascos to prove it. Scott took the tree wiring apart and found that the transformer had gone bad. He ordered one online and we waited. In the meantime a precious family friend mailed us a cross ornament with “He Comforts” scrolled across it. We hung it in the center of our lightless tree.
That week we talked several times about our plans to go to Pigeon Forge, no one was looking forward to it. One of the girls expressed uncertainty saying “we may just be sad there instead of here, I’d rather be sad at home.” After several family discussions we came to the conclusion there is no escape, we can’t run away. It is going to be painful wherever we are, so we will stay home and confront it. We will strive for joy but brace for the ongoing inevitable waves of grief and sadness.
On December 8th, the six month anniversary of the accident and Sarah’s departure, the transformer finally arrived. That same day Scott’s company had their Christmas party. After applying my make up and crying it off three separate times, I finally gained enough composure to be able to get out the door. Tears brimmed and drained several times on the way to the party. Scott really wanted to go and I wanted to go for him, but I was dreading it. His company is wonderful and we have been so well loved by them, but my heart was not merry, it was and is shattered. With the ticking of the clock throughout that day and into the night I was repeatedly and unwillingly drifting into thoughts of all the things I had done and experienced “6 months ago today at this time.” My goal for the party was simply to not cry through it. I did my best to muster a “not crushed in spirit” face and pressed through. I made it, only allowing the tears to overflow once at the very beginning, and again when we prayed before the meal.
I was confronted with a dilemma at that party, though. Up until then I had managed to avoid Christmas for the most part. But now, for almost four hours we were surrounded by festive celebration with repeated cheerful exclamations of “Merry Christmas!” When it was spoken to me directly, my eyes still brimming with tears from the quiet drive there, my heart recoiled in my chest. What do I say in response? This is not a merry Christmas at all, my heart is broken, how can I possibly say those words? I had not thought about how to answer, all I know is my lips will not form those words, not right now. “Thank you.” That’s all I could come up with in response. My mind was suddenly reeling with questions, is my lack of merriness reflective of a lack of faith? Is it a sin to not think Christmas is merry? Am I not appreciating Christ by not enjoying Christmas this year? So many thoughts, and in the midst of the torrential flood of emotions, so few answers.
The next day was Katelyn’s college graduation. My goal for the day was to celebrate Katelyn. I wanted to remind her how very much she is loved and how proud we are of her, not because of a college degree but because of who she is. I believe we celebrated her well. At the end of the day the five of us were in the den, the lights of the tree twinkling with our single ornament in the center. I believe it was Sophie who said it first, “I like the tree like that.” My heart leapt in my chest, “Yes, I do, too!” Everyone agreed, it was the perfect way to keep the tree this year. The lights are glistening like the hope that remains in our hearts, but only a singular message to be spoken for us this Christmas, “He Comforts.”
It wasn’t until two days later that I realized the blown transformer had been more of God’s tender care for me, His comfort. By delaying the decorating of the tree, He had graciously delivered my shattered heart from a task that was certain to crush the remaining shards. Conviction immediately fell over me. I have no explanation for why I trust Him when my world literally falls apart, but I so frequently fail to trust Him in the midst of the small stuff. Perhaps I am too quick to assume He’s not in the small stuff. It never entered my mind He could be working through those broken lights, but oh how my loving Father was working on my behalf. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief…
For our family, this is not a merry Christmas, and that’s okay. It is not a sin for us to not feel merry. It’s not a sin to not feel like celebrating the holiday. The absence of merriness does not reflect an absence of faith. The reality is we have never celebrated more the arrival and provision of our precious Savior. We boldly proclaim He is our only Hope. He is our only Redeemer. He is our only Sustainer. He is our only Deliverer. He is our only Comforter. He is the one who sometimes blows transformers to spare our wounded hearts suffering upon suffering. I am celebrating Him in the depths of my heart, just not with “gaiety, high spirits and festivity.” Not right now, and maybe not even next year. If not, that’s okay, too. If there’s one thing I’m learning in all of this, it’s to trust Him and walk in obedience to Matthew 6:34, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”