Living

In defense of joy, when grief overwhelms us

You don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to take notice when the pope calls Christmas a charade.

“There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes — all decked out — while the world continues to wage war,” Pope Francis said during a recent Mass at the Basilica di Santa Maria. “It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

It’s hard to argue with him. But I’m going to, a little.

I don’t possess a speck of the pope’s biblical knowledge, and my faith in a higher power wavers all too easily. But I know the Christmas story says God loved the world so much that he gave us his only son.

It’s a story of redemption, and it’s a story of fierce parental love.

In 2012, my childhood friend Kristina (Geister) Lancaster lost her 12-year-old son, Alex, just 13 days before Christmas. He died during an accident at home, leaving behind a devastated family: Kristina, her husband, Jude, and their other two children, Emma and Mason, 10 and 7 at the time.

Lancaster and her husband do a beautiful, admirable and, I can only imagine, gut-wrenchingly painful job of honoring Alex’s spirit, even as they provide a genuinely happy childhood for his siblings. Trips to Great America, school dances and Big Ten football games populate her Facebook page, alongside memorials to Alex: photos of his earlier adventures, the bench his classmates dedicated to him, the tree his Fox Lake neighbors planted for him.

Keeping christmas alive

I asked her, after I read the pope’s words, how she answers the call to give her children a joyful Christmas, even as she grieves the most primal, devastating loss.

“The second Christmas season was much more difficult than the first,” she told me. “Because the protection of the shock was gone. I remember not wanting to decorate or do absolutely anything for the holiday at all. I cried and raged quite a bit that my firstborn son wouldn’t be here, so why bother.”

But Alex loved Christmas, and keeping it alive felt like a better tribute to his life. So they started new traditions.

“Gifts show up under the tree for Mason and Emma from Alex every year, and they really treasure those,” Lancaster told me. “I put a lot of thought, love and effort into finding the right thing that just screams Alex. Even though he is gone from the Earth, he is with us every moment. We talk about not only what Alex would want us to do, but what Alex would do if he were here.”

Lancaster doesn’t see their celebrations as an affront to Alex.

“To not find joy even when you feel hopeless — and believing that none can be found — would be the beginning of a very dangerous fall,” she said. “It’s in the midst of hearing about something bad that we look for the good guys. The ones who are there to help in very bad situations. Or the people who organize a sock drive, so homeless people can have warmer feet.

“Mason desperately wants to be one of those good guys,” she said. “He brings canned food to every drive. He is helping assemble Christmas packages for needy kids in our town.”

Emma looks for her own ways to honor her older brother’s legacy.

“Last Christmas, she asked kids at the middle school to fill out red construction paper bands with a holiday wish in Alex’s memory,” Lancaster said. “Some wrote about a missing loved one, some wrote about Alex, and some wrote about whatever they were feeling. Emma and her friends used those strips to make a friendship chain of over 400 links in Alex’s memory. It’s still hanging over the second story balcony in the entrance of the school.”

Lancaster’s pride in her children is tinged with anger that they have to find ways to honor their brother, rather than growing up with him at their side. And that, too, is part of grieving — living with dueling emotions that sit right next to each other.

Grief, sadness, joy, hope

“For me, it wasn’t really until the last year, but I’ve accepted and learned that grief and sadness can coexist with joy and hope,” Lancaster said. “It’s hard. I miss Alex every moment, during every family time, at bedtime, all the time, but I also have two children who provide more joy and laughter than I could ever ignore.”

The love you feel for your children, and the soul-deep wish for their futures to be long and bright, aren’t canceled out by your sorrow.

Maybe the pope’s message wasn’t a call to sit this Christmas out. Maybe it was a call to approach the season with a sense of responsibility: to spread joy and celebrate our good fortune, even as we honor what we’ve lost.

Maybe this year we reject the many experts who offer us advice on managing our “stressors.” (“How to avoid holiday weight gain!” “How to avoid shopping fatigue!” “How to avoid your sister’s ornament exchange!”) All of which are, of course, signs that we live blessedly rich lives.

Maybe this year we find the courage to look at our children’s gorgeous little faces and tell them they have enough. Whether we buy them more or not, if they have a bed and a loving parent, they have enough. Maybe we remind ourselves the same thing: bed + loved ones equals enough.

Maybe this year we carry our sense of responsibility into the new year: Donations to the Red Cross. Volunteer hours at a crisis center. Socks for the homeless. Kinder words for our neighbors.

Taking good care, in other words, of the home we’ve been provided.

That would save Christmas from becoming a charade.

Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13

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