When I was in college, a friend introduced me to the movie, Home for the Holidays. It stars Holly Hunter and Robert Downey, Jr., and it’s a fantastic film about the special brand of family crazy that comes out around the holidays. (It’s also a reminder that I had a soft spot for RDJ well before Sherlock Holmes or Iron Man. Well-delivered sarcasm and well-deserved snark are wins for me every single time.)

For a group of half-adult, half-child college students preparing to go home for a few days, it was the perfect way to simultaneously brace ourselves and acknowledge that, dysfunctional and stressful as our own families may be, at least they weren’t like the one we watched in that movie.

Not exactly like it, anyway.

It’s funny. I’d never heard of that movie before college, and I don’t frequently see it making any lists of “Best Holiday Movies.” I mean, FINE, it’s no Elf or White Christmas. But when the weather turns cold and cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling move to the endcaps at the grocery store, I always think of that movie.

This movie – and the story behind it – doesn’t come to mind every holiday season because my family resembles the one Holly Hunter’s character has to face. (Well, not completely.) No, I always go back to those college memories because one of my friends who introduced me to the movie and its rightful place in my holiday prep routine hasn’t spoken to me in about a decade.

The story of how our friendship died is complicated and not one I’ll go into detail about here. The details really don’t matter, though. The point is that I lost one of my very best friends, and it broke my heart – and the days leading up to Thanksgiving remind me of that more than any other time of the year.

I bet you have a few people you miss all year long – but especially during the holidays – too.

When the Holidays Make You Sad | marycarver.com

Sometimes memories intrude on celebrations, making this season hard to handle.

The empty chair sticks out more. Or sits alone in the corner.
The room full of people feels quieter. Or louder.
The favorite dish has plenty left over. Or the favorite dish isn’t made this year.
The gifts go unopened. Or unwrapped. Or un-bought.
It’s hard to remember something to be thankful for.
Smiles look a little shaky. And tears are the uninvited guest that won’t leave.

Divorce. Dysfunction. Death. All of these things (and more) affect our families, our lives, our hearts. And though they hurt all year long, day in and day out, the holidays seem to bring out the pain like no other time can. On a day – or days – when we’re supposed to be all smiles and good cheer, our hearts crack under the pressure and the remembering and the missing.

I know. I’ve been there in the “it’s still so fresh, we can’t think about anything else, how can we possibly put on a good face this year” seasons. And I’m there every year when memories of losses from long ago and not so long ago join together to wage war on our determination to forge on and focus on the reason for the season.

Family and friends we no longer speak to – or who no longer speak to us.
Family and friends who died much too soon. (It’s always too soon.)
Family and friends who aren’t invited – or don’t show up.
Family and friends who moved away.
Jobs that were taken away.
Children who are sick.
Anyone who is sick.

We try so hard to fight for our joy, don’t we? We print out place cards and try the new recipe. We dress up our kids and bundle up for the long drive. We take photos and send cards and smile and chat and catch up and promise to call more often.

But underneath, many of us still carry wounds ripped open by the reminders of relationships and situations that are no longer. And it hurts. And it’s hard. And we’re not sure what to do with it all.

These hard things, these complicated relationships and challenging situations, can leave us in a bit of emotional paralysis. Unsure how to react without opening ourselves up to a monsoon of grief or anger or disappointment, uncertain how to respond without alienating or offending the people we love despite all the things that make family and friendship so hard, we might find ourselves in the same blank-faced or baffled boat as Holly Hunter’s character.

It’s just hard to navigate this stuff, especially when every store and station is blasting cheery tunes about the most wonderful time of the year!

Now, I’m not advocating that we stay in our pajamas, curl up with a turkey leg and a box of tissues, and decline all invitations in favor of a Pity Party for One. I’m not suggesting we ignore the blessings we have in front of us and spend our days off flipping through our photo albums and memories searching for clues about when it all went wrong.

No. I’m simply offering an acknowledgement – that the pain is real; a reassurance – that you can find peace and joy anyway; an understanding smile – and a hug that’s totally not awkward even if we’ve never met.

Sometimes the holidays make us sad. They make us happy, too – and it’s okay to feel both. But the sadness might still be there. And I believe that’s okay.

That sadness colors how we see what’s in front of us today – the family who can’t wait to see us across the table, the friends who don’t care if your pumpkin brownie trifle gets soggy, the children whose eyes light up with wonder and innocence – either the kind that’s truly not seen pain yet or the kind that can forget about it when faced with jingle bells and wishbones and parade floats made of flowers.

But while it can try its best to turn those beautiful gifts into bitter reminders of what’s missing, the sadness can’t compete when we remember that today is full. Full of pain, yes – sometimes. But also full of blessings and joy and things both big and small that God has given us to remind us of His love and faithfulness. Yes, even when the flip side is covered in reasons to crawl under the blanket with a bowl of mashed potatoes.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.
(Psalm 34:18)

If the holidays are making you sad this year – perhaps the same as every year or maybe more than you ever imagined possible – I pray that you can close your eyes and feel it for a moment. It’s okay to do that. Really. But then open them to the good that is still around you.

And, most importantly, remember that the Lord is close. And He will rescue us from the sadness. Not with false cheer or denial or caroling or casseroles, but with the peace that passes all understanding and His joy that can be our strength.

Do the holidays ever make you sad? How do you deal with that sadness?


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