Holly Richardson: When Christmas is a tender time

(Photo courtesy of Holly Richardson) Elizabeth Richardson and her daddy, Greg Richardson, taken on the Oregon coast in 1997.

Christmas of 2005 was not our regular bustling Christmas. It was somber and tender, as we grieved the loss of our daughter, Elizabeth, who we buried eight days before Christmas (and one day before my birthday).

That year, the focus was not on buying gifts, or big noisy meals or even on decorating. In fact, if an army of Secret Santas had not jumped in, it’s likely our living children would have only gotten a single stocking of snacks. Maybe.

And forget about cooking a big meal. I literally could not make myself do it. What I really wanted to do was to sit in a rocking chair in front of the Christmas tree and snuggle with kids in my lap. And cry.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I am pretty certain that every one of you knows someone for whom this Christmas season has been and is pretty tender. Maybe it’s their first Christmas without a spouse, or a child. Maybe they’re struggling with significant mental and/or physical health challenges. Maybe they are lonely and feel forgotten. Maybe they’ve been victims of domestic violence and there is no “Norman Rockwell” moment to look forward to. Grief touches all of us.

My 11th cousin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America’s best-known and most-beloved poets of the 19th century was no stranger to grief. His first wife, Mary, died of complications following a miscarriage. He subsequently fell in love with and wooed Frances (Fanny) Appleton over seven years. In 1843, they were wed and became the parents of six children.

Tragedy struck again in 1861 when Fanny was using a candle and sealing wax to preserve locks of her daughter’s hair when drops of hot wax fell on her gauzy dress and engulfed her in flames. She died the next day. The first Christmas without her, Longfellow wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The next December, he wrote again in his journal “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

One year later, in 1863, he sat by the bedside of his son, Charley, who had been injured in the Civil War. He heard church bells ringing in Christmas morning and he began to write:

"I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

His grief still evident, he writes the words now so familiar to us:

And in despair I bowed my head;

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;

'For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!'

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men."

When I first heard the story behind the words, a Christmas carol that had been one of my least favorites immediately became one of the most meaningful to me. There’s a bond, it seems, with others who have known great loss.

This week, as we celebrate Christmas, will you reach out to those around you who are having a difficult and tender Christmas? Invite them to dinner. Talk to them about their sadness, loneliness and fear. If they’ve lost a loved one, use that person’s name. (Believe me, you won’t be suddenly “reminding” them of their loss.) Help children do a remembrance activity, from writing a letter to putting flowers on a grave to just sitting and sharing memories.

If you are the one facing a hard season, be gentle with yourself, ok? You don’t have to do anything if you choose not to. If it helps to have a change of scenery, go out of town, or go serve at the homeless shelter or take plates of cookies to the police, fire fighters and medical professionals on duty Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Give yourself grace. Time will ease the burden and one day, you will feel peace again.

"Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, wishes everyone a Christmas of love and peace, especially those whose hearts are tender this season.