This season sparkles with joy. We open our homes to family and friends, greeting each other at wreath-decked doors under twinkling lights.
But a small moment often catches in our throat. We set one less place for Thanksgiving dinner. Or we cross a name off this year’s Christmas list.
Wherever we gather around holiday tables this year, there will be holes left by those who aren’t there. Relatives who have died. Loved ones lost to addiction. Babies who never got to be held. Families divided by divorce. Gaping holes left by grief.
Other changes are temporary but still weigh heavy on the heart. The kid not coming back from college this year. The family members deployed. The friends on the other side of the globe.
Holidays often set this truth in stark relief: Our families — and our lives — don’t always look the way we expected or planned.
I learned — after infertility and miscarriage and child loss — that smiling faces on Christmas cards don’t tell the whole story. Maybe the parents lost so many babies before they finally got to bring one home. Maybe they never wanted a huge brood, but the kids kept coming. Maybe their marriage is crumbling and no one knows.
Human nature is quick to judge what we see on the surface, quick to idealize others’ lives. But the truth runs deeper.
I look at my own family, and I ache for my children who aren’t here and my brother who’s long gone. I want to set three more places at our table, even as I delight in those around me.
But here’s a truth worth celebrating in a season of wonder: We keep going.
Suffering and grief are met by an even stronger force: that God made human hearts resilient. We do not have to despair when our reality does not match our hopes or others’ expectations. We can still embrace the good work of living out our callings.
Even amid the dreams that have died and the shadows of what might have been, we can still show up and choose joy.
Think about the holiest of families. Mary and Joseph could never have imagined how parenthood would begin for them.
But both embraced the life that God set before them, even with its suffering and heartache. They must have known great joy, too. Holiness was caught up in all of it.
So do not fear this year if your heart aches for the ones who aren’t here. You are not alone.
In a month that starts with All Saints and All Souls and ends in Thanksgiving, we can be grateful that our struggles are part of a greater mystery: The communion of saints in which the living and the dead are held together in the love of God.
Together we are only — but always — joined in this sacred wholeness: “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one church” (Pope Paul VI, “Credo of the People of God,” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 962).
Look around the table at those here to celebrate with you. Remember those who are gone. When you find yourself holding them together — the living and the dead, the lost and the found — then you enter more deeply into this holy mystery.
Even in absence, we can love in the present tense.
Fanucci is a mother, writer and director of a project on vocation at the Collegeville Institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. She is the author of several books, including “Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting,” and blogs at www.motheringspirit.com.
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