Speaking of Suffering: Holiday Edition

By Jacqueline Wilson

For many, the merriment and joy of the holiday season that is celebrated and broadcast in music, television, stores, neighborhoods, and churches can be a source of grief, anger, or irritation. This may be because holiday festivities emphasize and bring to light grief over deceased, sick, or estranged loved ones. It may be because it highlights one’s own physical and mental disabilities that impede full participation in the revelries. Despite the many causes, the truth of suffering during the holidays remains, and the need to help people through their suffering grows. As ministers of the Church, it is our duty to care for people in their suffering.

I have learned through my experiences as a caregiver and as one who has needed care that the social virtues of affability and thanksgiving are key to serving the needs of those who are suffering during the holidays.

Affability is the quality of being approachable or easy to talk to. Thankfulness requires noticing what is good about people and acknowledging their value as people. Having someone who was easy to talk to and who was grateful for my existence helped me through my darkest, most difficult times.

I remember, years ago, the circumstances of my eating disorder required me to be in an out of state hospital during the Christmas holidays. Being out of state isolated me from my family and friends and hospital rules limited my time for phone calls. The anguish I felt on that day was unspeakable. I felt like such burden to everyone!

I felt like I was a burden to the hospital staff. Because of me and people like me, they had to take time away from their friends and families to work on Christmas.

I felt like a burden to my family. Because of me, they had less hands to help them prepare for the party. They had to pick-up my part of the cooking, cleaning, decorating, and they probably felt obligated to make an extra phone call to wish me “Merry Christmas.”

I felt like a burden to my friends and fellow hospital-mates. No matter how hard I tried, I could not find the spirit of Christmas joy within me. I was severely depressed and worried that my depression would suck the joy out of those around me. I feared my dismal mood was palpable and contagious.

I felt like a burden to my ballet school. That year I had been cast the title role of Sugar Plum Fairy, but because of my illness, I had to back out at the last minute. The ballet school had to find and rehearse a new Sugar Plum.

But what helped me get through this period of suffering and find joy when I did not believe feeling joy was possible, was the simplest of things. I remember the moment well.

As the speakers of the hospital’s common room festively sang, “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” I sat on alone on the couch with tears of grief streaming down my face. I found myself stuck inside my head, feeling sorry for myself, and regretting that I would not be dancing the role of Sugar Plum Fairy that year. From across the room, I heard my nurse, Cheryl, ask, “Where are you? What are you thinking?”

I looked up, wiped away my tears and said, “Imagining myself dancing. I’d probably be on stage right now if I weren’t here.”

 Nurse Cheryl sat down and asked about my ballet career. As we continued talking, she found out I was Catholic and offered to call a priest to come celebrate Mass on Christmas with me. Delighted, I told her “thank you!” She responded, “No. Thank you! I know you don’t have a lot of energy right now, and I’m so honored you spent your energy talking with me and telling me about your ballet adventures.” She gave me a hug and looked me in the eye. I knew she meant what she said.

In the moment when Nurse Cheryl asked me where I was and sat down to listen to the reason behind my grief, she practiced the social virtue of affability. By listening to my grief and acknowledging it, Nurse Cheryl, believe it or not, gave me joy and hope. Talking about my former ballet career reminded me that my life is meaningful. It reminded me that by using my God-given talents, I can give others joy. Nurse Cheryl reinforced that truth for me by practicing the social virtue of Thankfulness. When she thanked me for spending my time and energy with her, she reminded me that God gives everyone value.

Having a sense of purpose during the holiday season, and any season, is imperative to those who are suffering. Often, people get lost in phrases like, “Everything happens for a reason.” And while this may be true, in suffering it can often be difficult to find a reason for our pain. It is my belief that if we can find meaning, value, and purpose through, not necessarily in our suffering, we can find joy.

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