When I was growing up, we always spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in Louisville with my grandparents on my father’s side. My dad was an only child and we were the only grand-children. But at that table every year was another couple—Mr. and Mrs. Doyle. The Doyles didn’t have any children of their own and somewhere, probably years before even I was born, my grandparents started setting a place for them at their holiday table—even going to pick them up when they were no longer able to drive. When Mr. Doyle died, we continued our thanksgiving and Christmas traditions of driving downtown to pick Mrs. Doyle up so that she might be a part of our family Christmas. And after her health made it impossible for her to leave the nursing home, our Thanksgiving and Christmas visits continued there. I can’t even tell you when I realized that the Doyle’s weren’t, strictly speaking, family. But come to think of it, I guess we were the only family she had left after Mr. Doyle died. That was when I first thought of someone having to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving alone.
I thought of this family tradition during our All Saints Sunday services and our remembrance of those in our congregation who have died in the past year. Our congregation not only experienced a large number of members who joined the Church Triumphant, but many of these members had been vital and in good health not so very long ago. Looking out at the congregation as we read the names a few weeks ago, it was easy to find the faces of those spouses and close friends who have been left to carry on following the death of a loved one.
Moving into the holiday season, Thanksgiving, then Advent, Christmas and New Year, it reminds me again of the fact that this “Season of Joy” is not so joyous for everyone. Indeed, the natural experience of grief can be compounded with conflicting feelings about family gatherings and gift-giving when someone is no longer there to celebrate with us. It reminds me of the importance of ministries like GriefShare—and especially the “Surviving the Holidays” seminar. Therapists call the time of recovery following the death of a loved one “grief-work.” And it is WORK. But it is also necessary as we who remain continue to live and breathe and even to extend the ministry of Christ through the care and nurture we can provide for others.
What this year has driven home for me is that each of us has someone in our “circle” who has lost someone recently. How do we respond to them this December, and especially at Christmas? Do you set a place at your table? Can you offer a small gift, or a warm greeting, or share stories of their loved one’s impact on your life? Can you send a card to someone far away who is alone this Christmas? Or visit someone in the nursing home?
Mr. and Mrs. Doyle have both gone on to glory, but I still remember her gentle smile, how she would pat my cheek softly and the lesson in generosity of spirit that my grandparents taught me just in setting an extra place at dinner.
May God grand you that same peace this Holy Season.