It was Christmas day 1978. The last words I heard my father say to me over the phone forty years ago this Christmas, was "I love you." Later that night he took his own life when he pulled the trigger on a gun at our home in Red Deer, Alberta. It was a Christmas I have never forgotten. Imprinted on my soul is the place where I sat and the emotion I felt when I was given the news of his death three days later. The emotion I felt was surprising, as it was not grief but relief. Relief that the chaos and rule of fear in our home was over and that maybe, just maybe, we could live in peace.
Four weeks prior, while living at home with my father in his unstable condition, my mother had a dream that a multiple murder and suicide was imminent in our home. I was barely 15, my brother 13 and my sister 9. As a new follower of Jesus my mother felt that somehow this dream was a message from God. On December 9, 1978 our mother planned a rendezvous with us at a nearby mall at the end of the school day. The plan was that we would walk the mall until it was safe to go home. Together we would sneak back into our home after our father was passed out in the living room on the couch. At that time in our lives he was drinking heavily and had a routine to his binges. We could then each grab a suitcase full of belongings and leave without incident. Our goal was to relocate to Circle Square Ranch 90 miles away where my mother's brother was the director. Our plan worked, and we found ourselves driving in the night skies on that long winter night, never to return and never to see our father again.
As you can imagine Christmas has not been my favorite time of year since that day in 1978. In fact, for thirty-one Christmas's following I could not emotionally come "home for Christmas". I found as my wife and I started our own family and we raised our own children that each Christmas morning I was met with a heavy heart. It was as though my stocking, that hung on the mantle, was filled with sadness on Christmas eve night each year. Each Christmas morning, I would awaken to grief waiting to greet me by my bedside. I would try and overcome it, rise above it and often I succeeded outwardly. At least enough to fake it for our children, but my wife Maryanne always knew I struggled on Christmas day.
In the fall of 2010 I was receiving prayer for "my stuff" from good friends Mac & Louise Jardine when the grief and pain of Christmas surfaced. The neatly curated compartment I had placed Christmas in was beginning to unravel. As we prayed the pain and grief were leaking out of my skillfully controlled compartment. I had successfully locked down the pain for 364 days each year. This grief was being released through tears, anger and intense sadness after thirty-one long years. I did not relish feeling out of control or being taken over by such intense dark emotions. I tried to lock down that compartment again. It was too late. Through those times of prayer, a cleansing and healing was occurring in me. Christmas 2010 began a completely new experience of Christmas Day for me. Sadness did not fill my stocking, nor did grief wait by my bedside to greet me. I was able to "come home for Christmas" for the first time in thirty-two years. However, my grief was not cleansed and healed in a moment. It was many long years of leaking out drips and drabs of grief. Yet, for the full cleansing and healing to occur it was essential I enter the abyss of the loss and abandonment of that day in 1978. I had to allow myself to feel out of control to be free. Who in their right mind wants to willing feel such ugly emotions? Not me either. Yet I did. I knew I had to be free.
Pain and loss are real, so are healing and freedom. Time isn't as much of a healer as intention. It is possible I did not need to wait thirty two years had I been willing to show more courage. The journey of connecting to loss and disappointments can be arduous and exhilarating. It can be terrifying and undoing. Yet, it requires stepping into the abyss for freedom and joy to return. I have discovered that inviting Jesus near in our losses is greatly underestimated. The encounter of God's presence brings light, life and healing into the darkness of life's journey.
In my life, Jesus is the reason for the season in more ways than one.