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Balancing Act: Finding joy amid grief during Christmas season

You don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to take notice when the pope calls Christmas a charade.

“There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war,” Pope Francis said during a recent Mass at the Basilica di Santa Maria. “It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

It’s hard to argue with him. But I’m going to, a little.

He is right that we have not understood the way of peace, and the human toll continues to mount. .

But I’m not ready to write off Christmas as a charade.

I don’t possess a speck of the pope’s biblical knowledge, and my faith in a higher power wavers all too easily. But I know the Christmas story says God loved the world so much that he gave us his only son.

It’s a story of redemption, and it’s a story of fierce parental love.

I sometimes have a hard time getting my head around God, but I understand illogical, unconditional love for your children, regardless of how well they live by your word or take good care of the home you’ve provided for them – be it a modest three-bedroom bungalow or, you know, Earth.

And I can’t imagine a loving parent who wants his children to lose hope or forgo joy because the family suffers around them.

In 2012, my childhood friend Kristina (Geister) Lancaster lost her 12-year-old son, Alex, just 13 days before Christmas. He died during an accident at home, leaving behind a devastated family: Kristina, her husband, Jude, and their other two children, Emma and Mason, 10 and 7 at the time.

Lancaster and her husband do a beautiful, admirable and, I can only imagine, gut-wrenchingly painful job of honoring Alex’s spirit, even as they provide a genuinely happy childhood for his siblings. Trips to Great America, school dances and Big Ten football games populate her Facebook page, alongside memorials to Alex: photos of his earlier adventures, the bench his classmates dedicated to him, the tree his Fox Lake neighbors planted for him.

I asked her, after I read the pope’s words, how she answers the call to give her children a joyful Christmas, even as she grieves the most primal, devastating loss.

“For me, it wasn’t really until the last year, but I’ve accepted and learned that grief and sadness can coexist with joy and hope,” Lancaster said. “It’s hard. I miss Alex every moment, during every family time, at bedtime, all the time, but I also have two children who provide more joy and laughter than I could ever ignore. So, the grief is here, but because we make Alex a part of our everyday lives by talking about him and wondering what he’d do or say, I can find joy and hope.”

The love you feel for your children, and the soul-deep wish for their futures to be long and bright, aren’t canceled out by your sorrow.

Maybe the pope’s message wasn’t a call to sit this Christmas out. Maybe it was a call to approach the season with a sense of responsibility: to spread joy and celebrate our good fortune, even as we honor what we’ve lost.

Maybe this year we reject the many experts who offer us advice on managing our “stressors.” (“How to avoid holiday weight gain!” “How to avoid shopping fatigue!” “How to avoid your sister’s ornament exchange!”) All of which are, of course, signs that we live blessedly rich lives.

Maybe this year we find the courage to look at our children’s gorgeous little faces and tell them they have enough. Whether we buy them more or not, if they have a bed and a loving parent, they have enough. Maybe we remind ourselves the same thing: bed plus loved ones equals enough.

Maybe this year we carry our sense of responsibility into the new year: Donations to the Red Cross. Volunteer hours at a crisis center. Socks for the homeless. Kinder words for our neighbors.

Taking good care, in other words, of the home we’ve been provided.

That would save Christmas from becoming a charade.

Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13