This holiday season our nation experienced a jarring juxtaposition I’ve become
more attuned to since living with cancer: the occasion when heartbreak collides
with celebration. The mid-December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School
injected shock and grief into a time when tidings of great joy are supposed to rule
the day. How does one rejoice in the midst of others’ anguish?
I admit that more than once during our family celebrations of the past few weeks,
my thoughts gravitated to the stark contrast between my family’s days of laughter
and joy and the families in Newtown crying their way through the holidays, knowing
that their precious little ones would never see another holiday, another new year,
another day of school. There were moments where it felt almost dishonorable to be
rejoicing, knowing so many others—both in Newtown and beyond—were buried in
As devastating an event as the Newtown massacre is, it’s far from the only cause
for grief these days. Violence from Syria to North Minneapolis translates into much
holiday mourning for so many. In addition to the violence we inflict on one another,
there’s also the pain that accompanies dreaded diagnoses of cancer, lymphoma,
heart disease, and more. Our family is cognizant of the children and father down
the street who spent Christmas without their mother and wife after she was taken
away by cancer. We mourn with our extended family as a relative with cancer has
almost certainly celebrated her last Christmas in this life. I admit to struggling with
celebrating our own good fortune in light the immense pain, sadness, and grief that
exists both close by and far away.
Back when I was really sick and really sad about my sickness, my husband—who
initially had been completely undone by my stage IV cancer diagnosis—informed
me that he had made a decision: that he was going to try and relish the time he and
I have left rather than spending this time mourning that we likely don’t have much
While my rationale self understood this to be a sound strategy, my husband’s new
approach didn’t sit well with the rest of me. The gravity of my diagnosis was just
settling in to my brain. I was sad—really sad. And I didn’t want a happy husband
who looked on the bright side. I wanted a husband who joined me in the pit where
sadness and grief dominate.
Since those early days of my diagnosis, I’ve thought much about the challenge of
knowing how to distinguish, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, between the time to
weep and the time to laugh, between the time to mourn and the time to dance. Is
it possible to embrace our times to laugh and dance in a way that doesn’t dishonor
others’ times to weep and mourn?
Twentieth century writer C.S. Lewis struggled much with the interconnection of
rejoicing and mourning. Lewis lost his young wife, Joy, to cancer early in their
marriage. In the movie, Shadowlands, that chronicles their life together, Joy insists
that they talk about her impending death. “The joy now is part of the pain then,” she
tells Lewis. At her gravesite, Lewis returns to Joy’s insight, telling himself, “The pain
now is part of the joy then.”
This explanation of the link between joy and grief is one I keep close at hand, as I
shed tears for the first graders huddled together in that Newtown classroom, as I
grieve for our neighbors aching at the absence of their mom and wife, as I wonder
how many holiday seasons I will get to celebrate. The gift of life is a precious one,
a gift I attempt to rejoice in and treasure, even amidst the stiff awareness of its
fragility. It is a privilege to wake to the sun, to smile at the new year, to cherish the
stark beauty of winter in Minnesota.
My husband seems to know what C.S. Lewis’ wife knew: that loving what is
finite means that the pain and grief are unavoidable. But when we’re given the
opportunity to rejoice, let’s embrace it, even as we are aware that grief in this life is
never far away. And let us also hope, in the words of Revelation 21, for a time when
there will be no more crying, no more dying—only light, only love.
Here’s to savoring the times to rejoice in this new year.