I find it fitting that today is both Thanksgiving and my sister’s birthday. It is a day of feasting and celebration, a time spent with family and friends, a time remembering what we have to be thankful for. Yet at the same time, it is a time of grief, where some of the memories hurt, and where some are not here to celebrate or be celebrated. Christina would have been 35 today if she were here to celebrate around the table.
The table means so much to me, both as a Christian and as a Custer. As a Custer, the table means food and fun, it means board games and card games, it means Blitz (or as some wrongly know it, “Nerdz”) and Revolution or Catan, it means debates and discussions. As a Christian it means fellowship, it means feasting, and it is a constant reminder of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus in communion.
But during the holidays, the table can be a painful reminder of who is missing. The Custer’s started out with 6 spaces around the table. Then 14 years ago, at Christmas, we started having one less place to set. Now there are two empty spots at the table. Yes, we’ve added lots of spaces for many of our holiday meals – spaces filled with people that have become near and dear to our hearts for many reasons – spaces that have become family. But no matter how many spaces are added, I can never forget the spaces that remain empty. No one else may see the empty seats, but I do.
I know I’m not alone in this either. I know the holidays are a difficult time for many people. That difficulty is doubled by the feeling that we have to be extra happy because it’s Thanksgiving, or it’s Christmas – because everyone else is celebrating. We feel like lousy Christians for not feeling more grateful for what we have at Thanksgiving. We feel like lousy Christians for not being more joyful at the gift of Jesus during Christmas.
I wish I had a solution. I wish that at this point I could tell you how to deal with grief during the holidays, and how to be grateful at Thanksgiving and joyful during Christmas, even amidst the difficulties and sadness. I wish I could give you “10 Tips on How to Focus on What You Have During the Holidays and Be Thankful and Joyful.” I wish I could tell you a moving story of how Jesus has healed my heart and I’m OK now and I see that he’s used all this for so much good.
But I can’t.
I can’t because I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning to face the empty spots at the table today. I can’t because I cried multiple times this morning as I remembered Christina and just missed her, and I cried again as I wrote this post. I can’t because I walk through the woods here in Scotland and my heart aches to have my dad (who was a forester) tell me the names of the different oak and pine trees, and enjoy the way the sunlight dances upon their branches and makes patterns on the ground below. I can’t because I don’t want to be happy or thankful or joyful during the holidays if that means forgetting my dad and my sister. I can’t because it hurts to remember that they’re gone, but it hurts worse when nobody is willing to say their names or ask me questions about them or just let me cry because I miss them so much.
But what I can do is hopefully remind some people that they are not alone during the holidays.
What I can do is hopefully make some people aware that there is often a silent sorrow hidden behind the outward mirth of the holidays.
And what I can do is share a passage that has given me much hope and encouragement this past year and a half since my sister died. It seems an especially fitting passage today – on Thanksgiving and Christina’s birthday:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoplesa feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.And he will swallow up on this mountainthe covering that is cast over all peoples,the veil that is spread over all nations.He will swallow up death forever;and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,for the LORD has spoken.– Isaiah 25:6-8
I don’t know why, but I love the image of a feast where God will swallow up death. It brings to mind a feast that is full of joy and sorrow mixed – joys and sorrows that are not just swept away from the table or ignored but actually integrated as a part of the feast, eaten and fully experienced. Where God doesn’t stop people from shedding tears at the table, he doesn’t say that only thankful or joyful people can come to his table, but instead he lets the tears fall and he himself wipes those same tears away.
I like to imagine that my dad and sister are already at that table now. I sometimes imagine that, even though they are thankful and joyful in the presence of Jesus, that doesn’t mean they don’t also have tears that need to be wiped away by him at that feast. Sometimes, I like to imagine that even God cries at the feast, even as he swallows up death.