In the late hours of All-Hallows’ Eve (known more popularly as Halloween), I sat near my father’s bedside along with my sisters, mother, and a few other family members. My father was dying. Every laboring breath kept us wondering if it would be his last. Prolonged gasps and false alarms stretched the hours and raised our collective anxiousness. When might all this end? When would restless struggle meet peaceful rest? When could my father “go home” and we begin to make sense of a strange new life without him?
As the evening waned, one thought stayed the course among the hundreds of darting questions, memories, and wonderings filling my head. It wasn’t the most important thing. It was simply the one hoped-for thing: “I hope he makes it to midnight.”
12:01 AM came. A new day. And with it, a familiar hymn sung countless times by our family throughout the years filled my heart and mind: “Morning by morning new mercies I see… Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not… great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.” I needed that reminder. I was grateful for it. The song memory was satisfying, but it wasn’t the reason I hoped he’d hang on to welcome the first day of November.
The reason wasn’t Halloween either. Halloween isn’t my favorite holiday, but I’m not spooked by it. My theology holds a love and light much greater than any dread or darkness Halloween might potentially cast on my life or my father’s death. I’ve passed enough cemeteries and buried enough friends to know that death and life are constantly at odds. Death is no friend of life; but it, nor Halloween, possess enough power to overshadow life—my father’s or anyone else’s. I could have handled an October 31st end date on my father’s grave marker. I was just hoping for a better day, the next one.
As the Eve of Christmas takes a second billing to Christmas Day, so All Hallows’ Eve gives way to the focus of the day that follows: All Saints’ Day. That’s the day I wanted for my father. That’s the day I wanted for me, for my family. A day that didn’t focus on death but one that focused on life in the midst of death. All Saints’ Day was the perfect day for that.
In my early years of faith, I belonged to a church community that often misunderstood and therefore maligned such recognized days as All Saints’ Day. Contrary to belief then, the day was not for exonerating the dead but for giving thanks to God for those who contributed to a legacy of faith we now benefit from and enjoy. Hebrews 11:38 kind of people… “of whom this world is not worthy.” My dad fit that bill. I wanted, and hoped for, a day like that to remember him.
God was gracious. He gave us that day with our father. As the sun peaked over the horizon the following morning; my father, like the moon that peacefully fades in the light of a new day, was no more. A new day. A new mercy. A new season of trusting God in unknown places and circumstances.
We needed that gift from God. We still do. Every Thanksgiving that followed. Every Christmas. Every New Year’s Eve which doubled as my father’s birthday. And honestly, many common days in between. We needed hope. We needed a reminder that in the midst of death and dying, heartache and pain, broken spirits in a broken world—God is present, aware, and alive.
Dealing with death is never easy. It was never meant to be. It’s the antithesis of living and life’s greatest enemy. Grief and mourning during the holiday season only makes it worse. Added financial strain, family weirdness, and the brand new (and frankly unwanted) experience of celebrating old holidays in new ways without your loved one… well, it kinda sucks.
That’s why my father’s death on All Saints’ Day was such a gift to us. It gave us hope that death, dying, and grief don’t have the final word. It reminded us that God is writing a bigger story, a better story. A story that may have some tear-jerking chapters but an epic ending. It reminded us then, as it does now, that the way we engage family and strangers alike… matters—on common days, on holidays.
Whether you’re facing the holidays without your loved one, dreading the upheaval that the holidays often bring, or simply wanting to celebrate the holidays in the best possible manner, here are three hopes to consider:
- God is greater than any grief, pain, stress, or circumstance … and it’s okay to feel lousy about it.Holidays often act like a press that squeezes all our inner thoughts and emotions and brings them to the surface. In times of grief, triple that statement. Everything doesn’t have to be okay and rosy when everything isn’t okay. You’re allowed to sit in the pain, grief, and messiness of life and relationships—knowing that, in time, God will accompany you to a place of healing and restoration. Take comfort, whether deep in grief or trying to manage the holiday hustle, that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18) and “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, emphasis mine).
- Holidays aren’t a have to … they serve us, we don’t exist to serve them.We often follow through with holiday celebrations because, well… we always have. In times of death and grief, we hear things like, “She would have wanted us to celebrate without her” or “He would have wanted us to do just like we always have.” That may, or may not, be the case. The truth is, the reality of a loved one gone, a family divided by divorce, children now married or off to college—changes everything. Not adjusting to new realities only leaves us disappointed and frustrated. Jesus, in talking about the Sabbath, tells His listeners, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It’s not a stretch to approach the holidays the same.We don’t exist to make holidays happen. Holidays occur because we desire to celebrate and participate in events and realities of life and history. Why not include in your holiday observance the events of your current reality and face your celebration honestly—as ones who may be hurting, lost, angry, separated, afraid, or alone? Allow the holiday to serve you as you face life honestly. Painting on a pretty face, stuffing down emotions, and attempting to hide grief or pain “elephants” in turkey stuffing and holly leaves never helps anyone. Ask honestly, “Given where we are with things, what is the best way we can celebrate this year?”
- God is with you … in every high and low, joy and sorrow. Peace is not the absence of pain but the presence of God. Do you believe that? Far too often our prayer in the midst of struggle and pain is “Lord, take this from me,” and not, “Lord, be with me through it all.” You may be tempted to pray that your annoying relative gets stuck in a snow storm or comes down with the flu and can’t make it to the family gathering. Or, that God instantly whisks away all grief, pain, and struggle you’ve been dealing with for some time. You hope and pray your uncomfortable encounters go away all on their own. Most likely, they will not.
Perhaps a better way to pray is “Lord, even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Make God’s presence your prayer. The “with us” God promises to never leave nor forsake you. His pledge remains, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). His presence, regardless of the circumstance, does not disappoint.
Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, may you face life honestly and unafraid. Know that in the dark streets of stress, grief, and conflict, God provides peace and proper perspective to “the hopes and fears of all the years.”
Yes, mercies are made new every morning—from All-Hallowed Eves to All-Saints’ Days, from hard holiday seasons to a time when all things will be made new.
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