Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent 2017 #14: When Decorating the Tree Was Almost Too Hard to Do

Ryan and I intended to decorate the tree after Thanksgiving, but got sidetracked and never placed the first ornament. We had the tree up and in the stand before he left for Atlanta, but that was the best we could do. I don't think either of us had the heart for it.

It was, after all, our first Christmas without Sam.

Before he left, Ryan gazed at the empty tree, standing, a little forlorn-looking, in front of the bookshelves. "I'm sorry we didn't get to the tree. Are you okay doing this by yourself?" 

"Sure. I've decorated trees before," I assured him, with less confidence than I felt.

It was true. I'd decorated dozens of trees in my lifetime, but I'd never put up a Christmas tree by myself before. This year was the first time in 28 years that I'd done the Christmas tree without Sam. 

It was, in a way, a double-whammy of firsts. 

I dreaded the task, so I delayed for a week or more. "You're a big girl. This is no big deal. You can do this," I assured myself a dozen times. Still, it seemed like a enormous job, and I wasn't sure why having a Christmas tree mattered. 

I considered skipping the tree all together this year, but it was already in the stand. To take it down without decorating it seemed a little too much like defeat. 

Finally, I fixed a cup of hot chocolate, stirred it with a peppermint stick, turned on the Christmas music, and opened the first box. I found my mama's handmade ornaments, treasures Ryan had made as a child, gifts from friends, and mementoes of speaking engagements in the boxes. 

Each ornament was wrapped in memories, and I treasured every one. In less time than I'd expected, the tree was covered with evidence of a lifetime of love and sweetness. 

There were sad memories, too, of course. The first Christmas after my marriage, Marshall's children gave me a bell ornament that looked a little like my golden retriever. I shed a few tears as I held it and pondered the pain, shattered dreams, and broken hearts the little dog represented. There'd been healing, too, I reminded myself, and thanked God for how He brought us through before I hung the ornament on a branch. 

After the tree was finished, I opened a box of greenery, berries, and garland. I stared down at it for a few minutes and put the top back on. 

It was too hard.

The plastic boxes sat for another two weeks before I finally rummaged through and found an unexpected treasure: three rolls of wide ribbon with the letters LED on the packages. The ribbon rolls each had a strand of tiny LED lights running through them. 

Could ribbon really be lighted? The concept was completely new to me. I didn't remember buying it, but it was clearly my ribbon. It was in my box, stored in my storage house. I decided to give it a try. 

I put greenery on the mantel, wove the ribbon through it, and plugged it in. Tiny red lights popped on and meandered above the fireplace.  I laughed out loud. It was the most unexpected (and frankly unusual) decoration I've ever placed on the mantle. 

Sam would've loved it.

The lighted ribbon brought with it a tidal wave of Christmas cheer and confidence. "I can do this after all," I decided, and joy filled my heart. 

The act of placing ornaments wasn't hard. The work of touching precious memories so soon after Sam's death was the difficult part. I miss him, especially at Christmas.

I'm not the only one who misses loved ones this time of year, and Sam's not the only loved one I miss. He's just the most recent. 

Grief will not be denied and it shouldn't be. It's okay to cry over ornaments and delay doing hard tasks. It's all part of the healing process. Every step matters, because the temporary pain of memory brings us to the lasting joy of healing. 

If you're in the place of sorrow this Christmas, take heart. Grief may linger a lifetime, but it won't always give a gut-punch every time it surfaces. When we allow God to touch our hurt places, He softens them with His gentle compassion, love, and peace. He surrounds our hurt with the promise of eternity and returns our hope. 

Delay, cry, struggle if you must, but don't stop walking through the valley of the shadow of death. A sweeter place of healing awaits on the other side of grief. 

"And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died." 1 Thessalonians 4:13,14 esv
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