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I’ve decorated the tree for eleven years. Standing just under 3 ft, it’s adorned with white lights, pink and purple ornaments, butterflies, My Little Ponies, and may just be my favorite Christmas decoration. But it’s also the most difficult one to set out. This tree is filled with memories of a little girl who once twirled and danced and sent giggles reverberating throughout our home. It represents love and peace and hope, but it also reminds me of death and sorrow and loss.

My Emma tree. 
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It’s curious how these feelings and truths dance together: love and loss, peace and sorrow, hope and death. I’ve come to realize that one does not fully exist without the other, and together they make a beautiful waltz. Emma’s death taught me that.

It took me quite some time to begin to learn the steps. During those early days after she died, all I could see was the pain and sorrow, all I had lost. That first Christmas was especially difficult. Trying to pretend it didn’t exist, I longed to hide from the displays of trees and presents, ignore the jolly music and joy-filled wishes. My heart was overwhelmed with sadness and grief, and I couldn’t see how it would ever change.


“I feel like my life will always be a life of sorrow. Of sadness. I don’t want to be sad all the time. I don’t want to be one whom people ignore because something bad happened.

I want to be filled with joy and peace. I want it to be real, not just words that I say. How is it possible that my tears will turn to laughing and my mourning to dancing? No matter what, Emma isn’t here with me anymore. I will never see her again this side of heaven. My precious little girl. I will never see her grow up. I’ll never hold her again.

Hope. Do I have hope? Dare I to hope? What if I get to heaven and Emma doesn’t remember me? There are so many questions in my mind - ones I know I won’t get answers to until the day I stand before you. Help my disbelief. Increase my faith.”  - excerpt from my journal on 11.26.2005, 10 months after Emma died



So that first Christmas we did the one thing that felt so un-Christmas, so anti-everything-we-knew: we booked a cruise to Mexico. But grief, of course, traveled along.

Hope felt far that year, an elusive gift just out of reach. We returned with tanned skin and still-broken hearts but something started to shift as the new year rang in. I began to learn a few steps of a bittersweet dance.


 “When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. ‘Where have you put him?’ he asked them. They told him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Then Jesus wept.”  John 11:33-35, NLT

Tears on the face of God. Emma’s death will not be final. No, it is for the glory of God. How do I grieve with hope?

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again.”  John 11:25, NLT  - an excerpt from my journal on 03.09.2006, one year after Emma died.



Those words and that story ushered in a glimmer of hope. My gaze slightly shifted. Death would not have the final say, but that thought was still just a thought, wishful thinking, an uncertain wondering. As that first year gave way to the second, grief continued to weigh heavy. I didn’t know how to navigate the fear that crept in. 

As the calendar continued, I realized Christmas would come . . . again. I faced the truth that one of my greatest fears of celebrating another Christmas wasn't just about the holiday. With each year that passed, I lived further away from Emma. The desire to hide returned.


“I want to start living life in the present, instead of looking at the past. I do know one thing that scares me about that - Emma was alive in the past. If I stop thinking about the past, I feel like I lose a part of her all over again. That hurts too much.” - excerpt from my journal on 6.27.2006


I didn't want to leave her behind, but there was no way for me to stop the time from passing. There was no way to lessen that painful squeeze of my heart, the longing to hold her just one more time. I had to figure out how to embrace the pain and the hope, the love and the sorrow, otherwise I didn’t think I’d be able to survive.

I began to ask myself some questions. What if Christmas wasn’t about the dinner and decorations, the presents and parties, the past or even the loss? What if there was something more, a special gift for us, the very ones with broken hearts and tears that fill our eyes? What if there really was a way to embrace the sorrow and loss with the hope of this season, believing that the Kingdom of Heaven broke through and came to earth in the form of a baby, a baby who grew up to be the Savior of all?

Something happened as I searched for the answers to those questions —I found them. Not all of them right away, but as I opened myself up to the possibility that there was more to this life, even more to Christmas, I began to see things differently. And I began to heal.

“The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!’” Lamentations 3:19-24, NLT

It’s been twelve Christmases of learning this dance — the suffering and remembering with the faith that God is who He says He is. I’m learning that Christmas isn’t about the festivities, it reminds us of His faithful love. The Son of God & Son of Man —Emmanuel, God with us; the one well acquainted with sorrow and grief. The man who wept when He saw the grief of His friends and came to seek and save the lost, being near to the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds.

I now love Christmas, even if tears stream down my cheeks as I remember a little girl who brought me such joy but whom I can no longer hug. This is the dance I choose to live, embracing the brokenness and sorrow gliding alongside the hope and love I find through Jesus, no longer longing to hide.

And this is why I decorate my Emma tree. To remember. To cry. And to hope. Always, to hope.

 


Comments

Ellen
12/22/2016 9:40am

absolutely beautiful. thank you for helping me see that there is hope in the midst of loss. ive often wondered how i would live through my family passing. now i know, it takes time, but it can be done with God.

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