Advent is upon us, the season of waiting expectantly for the birth of the Christ-Child. Waiting for all the Christmas decorations to be put up, waiting in line to buy Christmas presents, waiting for the oven to finish baking all of our Christmas goodies.
As ministers we wait for the special worship planning, choir cantatas, and Sunday School Christmas parties to be complete. As moms, we wait for our children’s Christmas wish lists and make plans for our special family holiday traditions.
Earlier this year, I was reminded of another group of people who may be waiting for the holidays to be over! In November I was invited to attend a community memorial service hosted by our local hospice center, and I was reminded of how difficult the holiday season will be for those who have lost loved ones, who will be facing a time of “firsts” without their parent, child, or sibling. For them, the Advent and Christmas season will often be filled with tears and memories of their loved ones.
It will be a season of grief and sadness for some.
As I reflected on the grief that some families will experience this year around the holidays, I thought about my own family. We’ve not lost any close family members or friends this year, but there will inevitably be some times of grieving and sadness in our home.
Why? Because we are a step-family with children who have experienced loss through divorce. On the outside, we may look like all is well when we attend church and family functions, but every step-family is born out of loss and it becomes part of who we are.
Four years ago, I became a wife and stepmother (although I don’t particularly care for the term “step,” I just use “mom”), and in that time, I’ve noticed that the holidays are a particularly difficult time for us.
For many reasons, my kids haven’t seen or heard from their biological mother in nearly 4 and ½ years, leaving behind questions and confusion. Holidays bring about memories and serve as reminders of her instability and abandonment, as well as thoughts of past traditions that can no longer continue.
When I joined the Jordan family in December of 2010, I thought I could make the holidays better for everyone involved. For me, it meant I was no longer the only single person at holiday gatherings.
For my husband and children, I thought it meant that their holiday could finally be complete because there was someone in charge of decorating, cooking, shopping and organizing Christmas festivities. I thought it would be an added bonus that they now had my extended family to shower them with love, gifts, and attention at Christmas.
Surely, they would appreciate this new blended, non-traditional family and we all would live happily ever after, right?
These last few years have been both rewarding and difficult. I am so blessed to have my own little family, and children always seem to make the holidays more fun; but I wasn’t prepared to deal with the grief that also lived in my house around Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas.
As much joy as the holidays can bring, they also allow some of the stages of grief to express themselves throughout the season.
Anger is probably the grief stage I’ve seen the most in our teenager. Death of a parent is certainly difficult, but it is even more difficult when the parent chooses to walk away from his or her children. The hurt our teenager feels is one that should never be experienced, and there is no replacement for the love a child should receive from his biological mother. His family has changed, through no fault of his own, and he is mad at his mother for the choices she made.
I see bargaining most often in our younger child. She thinks that if she could just send her missing parent a present or if she could just see her and hug her, then everything would change and her mother could be “fixed.” Her innocent mind doesn’t understand the reality of the mental instability and the danger she could face.
Close to a holiday earlier in the year, she came to me with tears in her eyes and said that she’d seen a picture of her family with her “other mama” (that’s what she calls her biological mom) and that she didn’t want anyone to take it down or replace it. At this, she collapsed in my arms with giant crocodile tears as I explained that our love doesn’t always cause people to make the right choices.
The next stage of grief, depression, is also part of our holiday season. Holidays often bring up memories of traditions that had been important, and I often hear it in their voice and see it in their eyes when they talk about how those traditions changed. “I wish we could do _________ again” or “I wish we could see ______ one more time” are sentiments shared during the season.
Although grief can rear its head at any given time, it seems the holidays bring it up the most often. In the last four years I’ve been a mother, I’ve noticed that emotions are heightened and hearts are more tender around this time of year.
Advent is a busy time of year for ministers but I pray that we will all be an encouragement to those non-traditional families around us. Many families will be split up at Christmas as children divide their time between parents. Some will be grieving due to a loss to something other than death.
At a time of year when most agree that family is important, some will still be trying to figure out how to be a family again in a different situation than past years. Pray that this Advent season will be a time for blended and other non-traditional families to grow closer to one another and to find peace in the midst of loss.
Rev. Kerrie Jordan is a wife to David and mother to Walker and Hope. She is a graduate of East Carolina University and Campbell University Divinity School, and serves as the Minister of Music at First Baptist Church in Smithfield, NC. Her essay “Once Upon a Time: the Tale of a Not-So-Wicked Stepmother” is part of A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood (www.helwys.com).