When compassion is the only gift that counts

Some people are in mourning this week. You, perhaps? Death of a loved one, loss of a job, a relationship falling apart: grief and pain and loss don’t take this week off. Christmas can be hard to take. I learned this firsthand a few years back.

Think of the hurting people this Christmas week. Please, reach out. It makes a difference. I’ve felt it. It might be the best pro-life ministry you could perform right now.

The Friday before Advent in 2000, my father succumbed to cancer. My mother was desolate, but even in her grief, Mom had as much self-discipline as ever. She was not about to miss Mass that weekend. She knew it would be hard. Her parish neighbors knew that Dad had been gravely ill, and Mom steeled herself against hearing “how is he?” and having to respond “he’s gone.”

We got to Mass. Her neighbors saw me enter with her, and they seemed to know that my presence signaled sad news about Dad. A few people approached us before Mass to offer sympathy. Mom was nearly numb and she left the talking to me. A challenge, that.

Mass began, with a visiting priest. As if he were clairvoyant, the unknown priest opened his homily on that First Sunday of Advent with these words: “Some people are crying this week. Not everyone is in the mood for Christmas.” That kindly and perceptive man, who didn’t even know us, gave us the gift of acknowledging our grief. He didn’t minimize it.

Over the following days and weeks, cards and letters piled up. My mother was a very conscientious housekeeper, and she had never let mail accumulate. Her lifelong routine had been to read it, answer it, and toss it. She let that routine slide a bit after my father died. She put the condolence cards in a basket in the living room. Whenever she walked past that basket, she absentmindedly let her hand brush lightly over the pile of cards and messages, as if to draw strength from their kind words.

Bless those people who wrote to us. They were busy with their families’ holiday plans, and they made time for my family’s grief. How desolate our Christmas would have been without them!

The awkwardness one feels at another’s grief seems compounded by this season and this week. How often have I kept silent in the presence of someone who’s been bereaved or stricken with bad news, out of a keen sense that I don’t know what to say?

Yet I have no real excuse for silence. When my father died, Christmas was redeemed by the little messages, the hugs, the I’m-sorrys. Paying it forward again and again is really the only way for me to express gratitude for the kindness that got me through that season.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body but yours …yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.” A hug, a text, a card, a brief word: all ways of “looking compassion” on those who mourn in the midst of Yuletide. Let’s be there for one another.