“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm’” (Psalm 55:4-8).
The loss of a loved one is not something one gets over. Time does change the shape and intensity of grief, but it never disappears. In October, I entered my second year of widowhood after unexpectedly losing my husband. My life changed forever on the morning Ted didn’t awaken here on earth. The sudden and unexpected timing of his death set in as shock that first year and stayed with me well into December and beyond. His death and the holiday season seemed to run together last year. My family, both biological and church, protected me fiercely and saw me through the first year as my world came to a screeching halt. I reflect back on that first Christmas without my beloved and realize that, in retrospect, it just happened around me.
In some ways, I can say “what a difference a year makes.” Yet, in other ways, as I continue to move forward in faith, all I can do is put one foot in front of the other and walk into this Advent season and the celebration of our Lord’s birth with as much purpose as I can muster. How frequently the words of David in Psalm 55:4–8 reflect my emotional state and the yearning of my heart. The problem is that there is no escaping. David longed, dreamed of and even attempted to run from his problems, discovering each time that one cannot outrun reality. The only way to overcome the heartaches and battles and what feels like inescapable problems of life is to walk through them, and, because of Jesus, we never have to do that alone.
Aloneness has been an interesting phenomenon this past year. I am never lonely because God has blessed me with an amazing support system. My immediate family members — including my mom, siblings, children and grandchildren — have wrapped their arms and lives around me like a warm, familiar quilt. My church family members have loved me so well and have taken vacations with me, made sure I’m never alone on special or important days, and even offered to take off time from work to be with me. The expressions of such tangible love are, for lack of a better word, so lovely! Loneliness has not been something I have felt.
But I have to admit that I’ve discovered aloneness is something entirely separate from loneliness. My daughter-in-law helped me understand the difference I am feeling when she observed that other people who knew Ted lost a dad, a friend, a mentor, a prayer partner, a minister, a boss and a leader, but I lost my person. The one flesh that had sustained me and formed my identity over the 40 years of our marriage had been painfully torn. It needs time to heal. It needs Jesus the Messiah who is helping me see that I continue to have love, support and acceptance from Him and from others. To be candid, the process of grief includes learning that I can be complete without my loved one and offer myself this same love, support and acceptance. I am learning, with faith, to trust and believe that what feels like aloneness will someday become completeness through Christ. It turns out that this takes time and it takes practice.
I believe that God gives us amazing coping skills, one being that of shock. With very little memory of last year’s holiday season because of emotional shock, the current Advent season looms large. Simple things and not so simple things can sometimes feel overwhelming: Do I get a Christmas tree this year? If so, how will I get it home because I’ve sold my pickup? I won’t be attending the annual Christmas party within the industry Ted worked so what will I do to fill those kinds of voids? Last year I did all my shopping online, but can I face the holiday crowds this year? Can I lead the church I pastor through Advent effectively, even if it is through tears at times? So many questions, so many concerns, and finally so much thought about what this time of year really means to me.
What does this time of year really mean? Even as a pastor, I have had to sit with this question this year. I’ve found the answer only by looking through the heart-pounding fear, the feelings of aloneness, and the desire to remake reality and reverse time. For those who have experienced grief of this magnitude, you know this takes a lot of hard work. After just one year, I have not accomplished all that it is going to take. In addition, the superficial elements of this season including the tree-getting, the party-going and the gift-buying have to be cleared away before this question can be answered.
This time of year means that all our pain and all of our struggles are relatable to the one who gave His Son to live among us. It means we have a Messiah who understands what it feels like to have the ground give way under your feet. It means we have hope for today and all of our tomorrows. It means that even if we can’t or don’t partake in the holidays in all the various forms that our culture offers or dictates because our burden is too heavy, we can indeed rejoice in the birth of our Messiah.
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever” (Revelations 5:13b).
Carlene Nisley has served as the lead pastor of New Vision Fellowship (Hillsboro, Oregon) since 2014. She was ordained in 2011 and graduated from George Fox Evangelical Seminary (now known as Portland Seminary) with a Master of Arts in ministry leadership in 2013.