In the world of family law, summer is a battleground. Parents jockey for position in an attempt to manipulate visitation schedules so that they’d get more time than the other parent. Usually, they just wanted that unfettered time of lazy days devoid of the school calendar. School’s out. No homework. No responsibility. Just fun as far as the eye can see.
Sometimes, parents would be more particular about crafting a schedule, homing in on the “forgotten” holidays – Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day. And, in South Louisiana where summer typically stretches deep into October, parents often went to war over “Parish Fair” Day – that extra Friday in October when the world of Washington Parish revolves around the fair. (Other parts might recognize this as the “county fair.”)
For those dealing with the loss of a loved one, summer can be a battleground. Even when the sky is cloudless and blue in the shade of a memory, shadows loom with the intensity of storm clouds. Not only is summer the season of barbeques and picnics, it’s the season for graduation crawfish boils, beachside wedding parties, and luncheons to shower an expectant birth. With the “Big Three” – Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – nearly the entire world is focused on the same singular occasion. Unless you live under a rock, the Big Three touch everyone in some fashion – even if it is only to gripe that the sale of Christmas decorations are outpacing Halloween decorations in October.
With the “forgotten” holidays, it’s happening all around us, but it may not touch each of us every season. Some years, you can skip these holidays all together. For those dealing with the loss of a loved one – especially a child – “forgotten” holidays sting the heart like the noon day sun pricks sunburned skin. There’s nothing forgotten about the “forgotten” holidays.
The collective focus of the Big Three brings with it natural reinforcements. People tend to be alert to those who are absent, because most of us are missing someone. We remember our loved ones at those times when families traditionally gather. When we feel the absence of our loved ones, we find ourselves being more sensitive to those around us who might be missing someone too. There’s no such consistency with the forgotten holidays. Some families gather. Others do not. We simply aren’t attune to which families might be dazed by the milestones that will never be reached. We aren’t in harmony with those for whom the shadow of death peeks from behind clear blue skies.
For those who are missing a loved one stolen prematurely or suddenly, the summer of forgotten holidays and the valley of the shadow of death tend to be indistinguishable. Those forgotten holidays tend to throw you into a daze. Though the sky is clear and the horizon unobstructed, we often can’t see what hits us. We find our hearts engulfed in a haze not knowing from which direction it came. The shadow of death creeps in dripping in “shoulda-woulda-couldas.” The husband and father who shoulda been here to see his baby girl honored at graduation, if only mental illness and addiction hadn’t rewritten the scene. The baby girl who woulda been here to shower her sisters’ weddings and the births of nieces and nephews, if only a careless driver hadn’t ripped up the script. A beloved brother and son who coulda been here to watch cousins bond as first friends, if only disease hadn’t shut down the show.
The shadow is scary. The shadow is dark and heavy, obstructing the light and consuming the heat. The valley is deep. We never know what we will find skulking in its corners. Abuse. Addiction. Divorce. Financial ruin. Death. Loss, loss, and more loss. They loom large and beat us down the way a schoolyard bully beats the lunch money out of the quiet kid.
While we are spinning in a daze, we can miss an important truth. Whatever shadow is sending us into a summer daze has no real power over us. Just like the schoolyard bully whose power dissolves when someone stands up to them, the shadow of death’s power dissolves when someone stands up to it. By the grace of God, Someone has. Jesus gave his life so that death would have no power of us. When we trek through the valley, we need not fear. We already know what’s on the other side.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
So, why do we cleave to fear? Why do we spin ourselves out of control with “what ifs” that are beyond our control or that never come to fruition? I wish I had a better answer, but two things come to mind. First, we tend to feel isolated in the valley. Second, it just seems easier to fall prey to the “shoulda-woulda-couldas” and the “what-ifs” than to see what is right before our dazed eyes.
The shadows obscure our vision. We can’t make out the forms. Shapes morph in and out of focus. We can’t see the rest of the flock cowering in the valley. And, as we wrap ourselves up tight to steady against the cold bite of death’s shadow, we resist reaching out. We keep our hands to ourselves. We fail to connect with others who are also bracing against fear. If we could just make that connection, we’d see that the valley is overrun. We are not alone.
Fighting the “what-ifs” – whether looking backward in an effort to untip the dominoes or projecting forward to tip dominoes that aren’t even in play – is a real struggle. Yet, neither is helpful. There is the rare occasion when better choices on our part might have prevented a tragedy. In those limited situations, we should take ownership of our choices and strive to make better choices going forward. Even so, we must still accept that different choices would not have necessarily resulted in a different outcome.
Future “what-ifs” are a different story. Have you ever received one piece of bad news and within seconds spun that one fact into a stick of dynamite destined to implode your entire life? A setback becomes a doomsday scenario. How do we stop our imaginations in their tracks? Again, I wish that I had better answers, but it’s really a matter of inviting our rational selves back to the party. I’m quite adept at letting my thoughts run amok taking me down one rabbit hole after another of events, conversations, and scenarios that never come to pass. I’m slowly getting better at taking a breath and inviting “reality” to the party. So, I know that it isn’t always easy to hit the brakes, but I also know that it is possible.
When we are simply unable to hit the brakes on the runaway-imagination-doomsday train, it’s time to share those thoughts with a friend or family member (or counselor) – someone trusted. Someone who will not dump coal on the engine and send you careening over the edge. Rather, you need someone who will help you focus through the daze. Someone who will help you to gently apply the brakes. Someone who can help you to navigate your way through the valley of the shadow of death – the valley of forgotten holidays – the summer daze.
Ironically, today – the first day of summer, the summer solstice – is the longest day of the year; yet, because the sun is highest in the sky, our shadows at high noon are the shortest that they will be all year. Perhaps, even in the depth of a summer daze, God is reminding us that the shadow isn’t as great as we fear.
The greater and higher the Light – the lesser the shadow.
What are your “forgotten” holidays? How do you meander your way through the valley? What is the source of your guiding light?