For those that find Christmas a time of heartache


Within the lift of coloured lights—a parcel of sadness. Under the ornaments, the tinsel, the tree—a box of loss. At the gathering of family and friends, holes: a lost relationship, news of an illness, persistent pain, an untraceable fear, the death of someone close.

These holes gape—twice as wide and hollow by the arrival of Christmas. They’re hard, sometimes impossible to bear. And we break. We grieve. And then, somehow, we endure.

We endure because we mourn. And we endure because we mourn with those that mourn. For we all have holes. We gather at the openings. We let the wind whistle through our holes, abandoning any attempt to plug them with pious resolve, mend them with religious platitudes.

We light candles at the location of our losses. We come with our load of grief, rage, tears. We come to speak of them, draw them, write them, paint them, sculpt them, make of them, blue songs—then, maybe, just maybe, in time, they change, loosen, float, drift. Replaced with a ripple, a wave, even a tide of comfort.

Among the stories and carols,

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,”

are also the right words for Christmas. For they reach into the shadows of Yuletide.

Blessed are they that mourn—we need no authorization or justification. Such space, such allowance to throw off the social dictate that says, stand up and get on with it—is freedom to breathe.

For they shall be comforted—not in some world to come. But some time when we’re together. Perhaps later, perhaps soon. Maybe not forever, maybe just for now, this moment—in the middle of sharing some memory, there’s a smile, there’s laughter.

Realists may spurn this permission to mourn. But here, in these words, mourning—that western cultural embarrassment—is elevated to a way. Not a way around, but a way to stand and walk.

So mourn. Mourn the missing, the loss, the hurt, mourn our inability to go back and say all the things we wanted to say, all that unfinished business that will stay unfinished.

For somehow, if only in being honest, we are blessed by mourning. Blessed by the deep artful movements of human hearts. Blessed by our heart’s own hidden wisdom. Blessed beyond our weak cognition to the seat of the soul—with its complex mix of heartache and joy—like a winter river, with light flowing beneath the ice.


  1. Thank you, Stephen, for seeing below the surface. My husband died four months ago, and while I sense and sometimes feel the joy of my favorite season, I stand alone, looking into the cold river, seeking the light.

  2. This is me. And this is the first “real” thing I’ve heard this month. That it’s beautifully written is a second gift. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for these transparent words. I lost my 19 year old son last fall. Second Christmas with a broken, empty heart. I am comforted by the words of other mourners.

  4. Stephen,
    As always, I appreciate your words. While I haven’t experienced the types of loss that many of your readers have commented about, I always enter some sort of “funk” (for lack of a better term) during the holiday season. I typically feel guilty about this, given all that there is to be thankful for in my life.

    Perhaps my mourning is a sense of loss for times gone by – celebrating the holidays with way too many cousins crammed into my grandmother’s humble farm house in which a wood stove served to provide warmth and cook scrumptious meals. There is a sense of loss of not getting to be with my parents during the holidays — due mostly to the many miles that separate us and a hectic academic schedule with unfortunate deadlines. But there is also the sadness associated with my mother’s ever-worsening dementia and the loss of what Christmas always was for her and for us. She was the one who remembered everyone’s address for Christmas cards and everyone’s birthdays. This year, she didn’t even remember mine.

    Perhaps it is that my boys are now grown and while we have “traditions”, the sense of youthful excitement has now faded, replaced by distractions of the girlfriend in another state or a video game or college applications that need attention.

    This year in particular, I am deeply troubled not only about the state of affairs in the world – all the hate and suffering, but also by a seeming lack of leadership and respect and empathy. I find myself turning off the media reports as I am sickened by the garbage that spews from the mouths of would-be politicians and cringe that they may be serving as “role models” for some.

    As our lives temporarily slow in the days after Christmas, I find myself regretting all the things I didn’t do with my parents, sons, friends…instead of focusing on the wonderful things we did do together. And in a strange sort of way, I look forward to the return to the “routine” where I get too busy to be sad. But maybe this time for reflection, regrets, and yes, even mourning, is important – a rejuvenation of sorts.

    Why is it that your words reach into my soul and pull out these dark feelings that I don’t express elsewhere?

  5. Diane, as always, your comments warm me and take me further than my own reflections. How well you’ve stated that certain melancholy that we all share by degree. Thank you for deepening the conversation through your honesty and openness and self-awareness. My thoughts are with you as you move into the next season, and with your family as well.

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