Christmas can be a time of joy and celebration—but it’s also a season of lament for many of us. For my family and me, we’re just past a season of grief; lament always remains a prayer on my lips. We live in a broken and hurting world, after all, and if we’re not currently grieving, we know someone who is.
I don’t know your story, and mine may be vastly different. In many ways, my story is simple, expected. Death is a reality we all have to deal with at some point, and my family is no exception. Maybe your journey through the valley of the shadow of death is messy, complicated, confusing. No matter what your story is, this truth remains: The God who came at Christmas is a God who knows our grief.
On December 23, 2010, I got a call from my parents while my husband and I celebrated an early Christmas with his family. My mom’s voice shook as she spoke, and I walked down the stairs of my in-laws’ condo to talk to her on the phone. She told me she had turned yellow with jaundice, and doctors believed it was caused by something serious—cancer possibly. The next day, she’d be admitted to the hospital and then have surgery on Christmas morning.
Shortly after we arrived at Newark airport, we made our way to the hospital. As I entered my mom’s room, her deep yellow skin startled me. I don’t remember much about that visit, except feeling tethered to her bed when we needed to leave. I didn’t want to go; I didn’t want to be there, either. But uncertainty held me like a heavy chain. What if she never makes it out of surgery? What if this is the last time I see her?
On Christmas Day, a Buddhist doctor performed the Whipple procedure, a complex operation removing a portion of the pancreas and other organs. We sat in the hospital lobby waiting for the doctor to finish the surgery. Friends dropped off Panera for lunch. We munched on chips and ate forkfuls of salad, talking through tears about the turn of events. White lights glowed on the Christmas tree near the window while carols played in the background. Every once in awhile, the sounds of a chime rang through the hospital, letting everyone in the building know a baby had been born. I remember thinking how odd it was that a place like a hospital could be filled with such joy and such sorrow at the same time. In the same place and at the same time that my mom was being cut open to remove cancer, new life cried out in a nearby room.
I suppose it’s a fitting way to spend Christmas Day—listening to the announcement of a baby born in the midst of our own grief.
My mom made it out of surgery. Doctors called the procedure a success, but confirmed that her sickness was in fact pancreatic cancer. Although surgery likely helped prolong her life, thanks to too much Googling we knew the nearly impossible odds of beating this type of cancer. Over the next few months, my mom went through an aggressive chemo and radiation regimen and was in and out of the hospital. She seemed to handle the roller coaster ride as well as we could hope. While she never functioned again at one hundred percent, at times the disease seemed manageable—or maybe “manageable” just means we got used to it all.
Six months after her surgery, I got a call from my parents again. At that point, I dreaded seeing their names when the phone rang, because bad news often followed. My dad had blood work done and doctors saw something they didn’t like. After more tests and appointments, the results were clear. Cancer—multiple myeloma, a cancer I knew nothing about at the time but learned it was relatively treatable, although it required a less than pleasant treatment plan.
In December of 2011, a year after my mom’s diagnosis and six months after my dad’s, my mom began her second round of chemotherapy, and my Dad had a stem cell transplant to treat his cancer. While their cancers were quite different, they were for sure in this together now. They even scheduled their oncologist appointments together.
'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' is as surely the Word of God as 'all things work together for good.'Sarah Hauser
We spent much of that holiday season in the hospital with my dad. I flew back and forth to New Jersey, grateful for a job where I could work from home, but wishing that didn’t mean setting up my laptop during chemo treatments or in waiting rooms. Rarely had I stepped foot in a hospital before then, but I quickly grew accustomed to the winding hallways, smells of disinfectant, and beeping machines.
My dad eventually went into remission, but in the late spring of 2012, my mom elected to stop the treatments that made her more sick than the cancer itself. At that point, it was a waiting game. Her doctors didn’t want to give her a timeline, because no one really knew how long it’d take. But she pressed her oncologist for answers, and in the summer of 2012, I vividly remember my mom saying, “The doctor doesn’t think I’ll be around at Christmas.”
There had always been one more treatment, one more appointment, one more thing to try. Until there was nothing left to try.
I’ve never dreaded a Christmas so much. Advent wasn’t waiting for the birth of a Savior that year. Advent meant waiting for my mom to die.
During that time, I read The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. It’s set as the prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and in it, Digory’s mother is sick. As Aslan prepares to send him on a mission in Narnia, he asks Digory if he’s ready.
“Yes,” said Digory. He had had for a second some wild idea of saying, “I’ll try to help you if you’ll promise to help my Mother,” but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said “Yes,” he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:
“But please, please—won’t you—can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at his face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great.”
As I read that, I wept. I wept with Digory, a fictional character whose words felt all too real. I questioned Aslan, wondering why he did things the way he did and why in this story (spoiler alert) Digory’s mother gets healed. Why didn’t God heal my mom?
I can point to situations where God worked through my parents’ cancers in a way that may not have happened in their health. But couldn’t God find another way?
Even as many of my questions have gone unanswered, I’m reminded of this: our God is not a distant God. He’s not apathetic. He takes up the state of humanity and fixes it. He relates so deeply to the human condition that he became human.
He knows better than anyone that grief is great.
Matthew 1:18-23 tells us this:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
Jesus. Yahweh is salvation. Immanuel. God with us. Those two names proclaiming to the world what God would do and how he would do it. Yahweh would save, and he would do it by being with us. With us so much that he became one of us. In a sermon on Matthew, Tim Mackie says, “Precisely at the lowest moments when you think God is totally absent, Jesus invites us to see that’s exactly where Immanuel is.”
I suppose it's a fitting way to spend Christmas Day—listening to the announcement of a baby born in the midst of our own grief.Sarah Hauser
“God with us” doesn’t just mean Jesus is in our hearts, like a security blanket we may have carried around as a child. It means he knows our grief firsthand. When you’ve walked through sorrow, have you found solace in a friend who’s gone through the same thing? There’s a knowing, a comfort, a deeper connection that happens when someone else has walked the same road. We saw this when Reverend Eric Manning, the pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston where nine parishioners were shot to death in 2015 met together with Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life congregation, where a shooter recently gunned down eleven people. Despite vast differences, they knew each other’s suffering all too well. There’s a level of mourning with those who mourn that can take place with someone who knows in the depths of their soul what it’s like to walk through what you’ve gone through. Find those people. Maybe you’re that person for someone else. We need to have people and be people who can weep with those who weep.
But let’s also remember this. Jesus came to earth and experienced all we experience. Hebrews 2:14 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” He didn’t only suffer and die. He wasn’t only tempted, yet remained sinless. He doesn’t stop at mourning when we mourn. Yes. He does all those things. But friends, he rose from the dead.
This season of Advent celebrates the birth of the Christ. He is Immanuel. He is a God who knows our grief, who was born as a baby to a hurting world and grew up to die a criminal’s death. But the story doesn’t end with him in the grave. For God is with us, and Yahweh is salvation.
Isaiah 53:2-5 says:
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Unlike even the best of friends who know how to weep with us, our God not only weeps, but he heals. He’s a God who hears our lament but will turn our lament to rejoicing. He’s a God who not only listens but brings justice. He’s not only a friend who grieves alongside but a Savior who rescues.
Matthew bookends his gospel with this truth. When Jesus gives the Great Commission in Matthew 28, he promises, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v. 20). God is with us, not in an ethereal, fuzzy-feeling way but as a Savior who knows what it is that you’ve been through, who is God, who came to earth, lived a hard life, and died a torturous death—a Savior who rose from the dead declaring victory over sin and death and who one day will make all things new.
My husband and I spent our first three Christmases together caring for and pleading to God on behalf of my sick parents and our own heartache. A couple months after that third Christmas, on February 12, 2013, my mom died in her room with our family around her. I’ve questioned and wrestled, wept and prayed. And I still do. Moments of grief catch me off guard, even though we’re five and a half years past her death. I don’t have easy answers or a pretty bow to tie around the end of this story. You don’t put a bow on death.
At the same time, I’m grateful for my dad’s healing. Years after his initial diagnosis and treatment, he remains cancer free. New health challenges have arisen, including Parkinson’s disease and a litany of surgeries, but God can heal. Why he chooses to in some situations and not others is a question I’ll always ask.
Yet this I know: our God is no stranger to grief. We can wrestle and weep and plead with God just like David, Habakkuk, Job, and so many others. He can handle it. The same God who inspired the writing of our favorite psalms of praise also inspired words of gut-wrenching grief that his own Son uttered on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is as surely the Word of God as “all things work together for good.”
But resurrection followed his cries. And we can be just as certain the same is true for us. Resurrection is death’s undoing. It’s death’s defeat. It renders death utterly powerless. 1 Corinthians 15 says, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead…The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (v. 21, 26).
For those in Christ, grief will not have the last word, and lament will not be our final prayer.
Even while we weep, we can rejoice. Revelation 21:4 tells us, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
He knows our grief. And one day, that grief will be no more.
“Grief” by Gene Gould
Sarah J. Hauser is a writer living in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three kids. She creates recipes, shares stories, and writes about theology to help others find nourishment for their souls. You can read more on her website, sarahjhauser.com, and find her on Instagram (@sarah.j.hauser) and Facebook (sarahjhauser).