I have been saving an e-mail from my friend Nancy for nearly a year. The e-mail announced the death of her father Pete, an elderly man in his late 80s. Pete’s death was not unexpected and it was, for him and his family, relief from the dementia he suffered.
I didn’t write to Nancy when her e-mail arrived because I didn’t read the e-mail for some 10 days after it came. My husband’s mother passed away the day before Pete did – and we were wrapped up in our own blizzard of activities around traveling and disposing of the earthly goods and making arrangement for Rita.
I did write to Nancy today as we near the 1-year anniversary of both Pete’s and Rita’s deaths. The rest of the world frequently forgets the pain of losing someone shortly after the funeral. For those who loved the one who passed, the reminder of the beloved’s absence is present nearly every day for a year, and most poignantly at holidays – whether the memories are happy or sad.
Probably one of the more difficult emotions that haunt the year-after-death is the pang of regret – the regret of what was not possible in the living relationship – a relationship that now exists in one-way silence across the river Styx. While we may not speak ill of the dead, the pain they caused and we caused remains – the pleas for forgiveness not able to penetrate the barrier – at least we cannot perceive its penetration from this side.
For Christmas Eve meal, it has been our family tradition to set one extra place at the table – a special place setting that invites those who have gone before us to join with us unseen in the celebration of the return of Light. By doing so, we remember their importance in our lives, we accept and extend the forgiveness that eluded us before, we include them from this side of the River.
It is no accident that Christmas comes on the heels of the Solstice. On the darkest day of winter, the sun begins to stay with us a little longer. The daylight begins to lengthen and we are supported in our faith that the sun will return, in our hope that the lost will be found, and that this year is yet another cycle. We are offered the grace of additional chances to forgive and be forgiven in our earthly relationships.
In our small way, as we light the Christmas candles, we renew our faith in the return of the Light. We renew our trust that the God of All Things is also the God of Small Things and draws near to us in our humanity. We renew our hope that regret will be transformed, that grace will penetrate the most silent of walls, that in the end, the lost will be found and the broken will be made whole.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”