/ / An Awkward Christmas in Photos, a Birth and Loss

An Awkward Christmas in Photos, a Birth and Loss

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As I ponder and reconcile the last few weeks and especially these last several days of our first Christmas without our beloved Jon, there is so much I want to say and so many pictures I want to share.

Both the words and photos feel awkward. This photo from our Christmas wedding isn’t the awkward one. The one at the end is.

Most of what lingers in my heart I have brought to God and my kids and a few good listening ears.

But there is so much, too much to say about grief, loss, the holidays, and how to love and truly support those who are going through a profoundly raw and new loss.

Only in God’s time and in His Will would I ever consider writing and sharing such awkward, heartrending and eye-opening words.

This is our season—wedding anniversaries, birthdays of a few kids, and the birth of our Savior.

This is the season when we gather with others or open our homes for so many celebrations and nothing in particular. We have countless memories and photos that speak to the truth of this.

A once-budding photographer, I have consistently captured life as it unfolded. To reveal this, I have boxes of negatives and countless files on my computer, and discs and in virtual libraries.

But this isn’t the life I pictured it would be, not now.

But then again, it never really has ever been. We always just learned to embrace the awkwardness and brokenness of life and what was thrown at us. We make the best of it, and make memories.

We did that these past few weeks of December with birthdays, Christmas recitals, and a few last-minute pop up open houses for our shop.

We took so many photos and will hold tight to these memories of us making it through some tough days and hopefully while encouraging others along the way.

But a Christmas Photo…With all we have lost, how could I?

We haven’t done Christmas Cards in years, for many reasons anyway.

I wasn’t going to share the Christmas photo (it’s at the bottom) because while I love the smiles and wanted to mark the moment, it felt as awkward, broken and uncomfortable to have it taken as it looks.

After almost 26 years of standing at the altar on Christmas as our family (and hearts) grew and stretched, even while living with brain cancer and a stroke we managed to get family photos.

It felt proper and necessary, and I am grateful we have those memories of our final Christmases with Jon.

“The Christmas story has an unconventional hero—not a warrior, not a worldly conqueror, not an individual at all, but rather a family.”-Dr Scott Hahn.

“The Christmas story has an unconventional hero—not a warrior, not a worldly conqueror, not an individual at all, but rather a family.

Dr. Scott Hahn

This year’s Christmas photo marks how we have been permanently altered by death. We all have been affected by death that was never part of God’s plan.

This Christmas season and the photo is awkward because it doesn’t make sense in our human world. Jon should be here.

It is not natural that he is not with us.

Mourning and death was never part of the plan.

For years, as we approached the altar, we each had a place in the photos as we birthed new babies and grew our family and our family grew up.

With each new year and celebration of Jesus’ birth, we all knew how to come together for a photo to mark these sacred moments, even while we rubbed elbows and grated on each other’s nerves.

Bringing our babies and kids to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day mass is and was holy work.

As I look at our Christmas Eve photo, I have a stunning realization that we are simply making it work in our pain and discomfort. We are making our everyday work the best we can. These photos without Jon are just not right. This life without Jon makes no sense.

We need lots of mercy and grace and no judgement (for ourselves mostly) even in sharing an awkward and uncomfortable family photo.

The awkwardness isn’t just because I feel and look uncomfortable, but because it is uncomfortable sharing a photo of our family without Jon. I still only see half of me.

But we want to capture the memories because we cling to them.

Life is far too precious and short to let these moments pass us by, even when we are missing someone we love so dearly.

As we slowly take steps to create a life in our new circumstances, the kids and I chose to sit in a spot different from where we usually sit for Christmas Eve.

Because of where we sat, an usher friend leaned down and asked if we wanted to bring up the gifts for the Presentation of the Gifts.

So we did, and it was an honor but a terrifying one as we walked up the aisle in front of our family—the church—many who know our story and journey of cancer, caregiving, loss, and grief.

For a moment, I panicked, I didn’t want to feel “on display” or pitied or have others look at me in judgement: “Oh, she’s that widow.”

Instead, it felt more like a gentle embrace of compassion, understanding, and love without limits and sadness for and with us. Our story is sad; no one wants us to walk this path.

My usher friend felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit to ask us; we could have said no. I do my best to never say no to God even when it feels uncomfortable. There is great humility in this.

He knew by the exchange of our glances and tears in my eyes that asking us to bring up the gifts would be more of a gift to us—to be seen, known, and loved.

Through the tears that fell when I was asked and throughout the mass, I gained clarity again that the church is our family—the Body of Christ has never left us.

Jesus has never left us either, not even in our pain.

He gives us gifts like when we are asked to present the gifts at mass and in the gift of tears. He gives us gifts in many other forms, too—in the ham and potatoes and the baked ziti that showed up at our door for us to make a few meals, in the fun 12 days of secret angel family giving we received, in the messages of love and compassion and the generosity of so many good souls, in the thoughtfully chosen gifts, in the signs we see like the one on the road that says “Jon knows,” and in the page we opened to in the missal on Christmas Eve (notice the page number 428 and the song).

Btu we know Jesus is the ultimate gift.

Throughout the stunningly beautiful (and heartbreaking) mass, I was flooded with memories of many past Nativity Mass celebrations.

The night before, 4th Sunday of Advent Vigil, seeing the church decorated took my breath away. It reminded me of our Rehearsal and Christmas Wedding and all of the years Jon and I hurried through Christmas preparations to get the kids dressed in pageant gear and/or their Christmas best and the years they couldn’t wait to be at Christmas Eve mass.

They still carry on this tradition as they come to the altar in their Christmas best to celebrate a birthday, the most important one we celebrate.

As we quickly and awkwardly gathered in front of the altar to muster smiles in our ache, it was hard not to think of where so much life (baptisms, communions, confirmations) and death (the funerals and Passion of Christ) have been celebrated and honored on this altar and a few others.

Behind us in the awkward family photo (the one in church) is a beautiful creche, a display of the reason we gather this season. I kept thinking of all of the life and liturgy we lived.

When the star broke the darkness in the sky, the good news was shared: a savior was born, and people came; I imagine they expected a king, the king of kings. He is/was but not with a crown or riches they could see then.

“Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”

C.S. Lewis

Instead, they found a vulnerable newborn wrapped in a cloth lying in a place where lowly animals ate. And a mother was gazing upon this new life from her unstained womb who would redeem the world.

Also behind us is a man, the Savior, on a cross who, 33 years after he was born, saved the broken world, a world not meant for sin or death.

That infant born in a stable where lowly animals eat becomes the bread of life.

Death was never meant to be.

Not our death, not His, and certainly not in the brutal and cruel way he suffered and died on the cross.

This is why my Christmas Eve photo and all family photos feel awkward.

Death was not meant to be. The fruit in a garden changed it all. The bread of life born in a stable comes to redeem us.

Death was not meant to be. The fruit in a garden changed it all. The bread of life born in a stable comes to redeem us.

Heather Lebano

It’s an awkward juxtaposition to be celebrating the joyous birth of a new baby whose life and gospel becomes one of compassion for those who were afflicted, poor, oppressed, ill, and suffering and later whose life and existence would become the passion for a man who was abandoned by those who claimed to love him. The same people who celebrated (and celebrate now) and shouted Hosanna turned their backs on him, denied him, and chose to crucify Him.

But He never leaves us.

So, I share this vulnerable photo (below) of my kids and me (mostly me) standing awkwardly on the altar. It reminds me of not only my suffering, abandonment, pain, loss, oppression, grief as I cling to the cross and honor the birth of a savior, but also it reminds me it is nothing compared to what Jesus suffered and to what our Blessed Mother suffered as she watched her son like I watch my children suffer in pain, sorrow, loss, loneliness, abandonment, grief.

Sure, we are smiling and clinging to the present moment and the presence of Jesus and receiving all the gifts we are given with gratitude.

And so often, the breathtaking presence of Jon as he continues to make his presence known to us in so many ways—the veil is thin.

But it is a strange place to be—in this life with the lives I co-created with Jon without him here, walking the earth, celebrating and embracing it with us.

But I see him in that photo; he’s there in the faces, hearts, souls, and every fiber of each child we created staring back at us.

Through the Sacrament of Marriage at the altar, we receive Jesus, the bread of life, and every time I receive that consecrated host—the gifts we presented, I feel Jon is woven into my heart and soul and in my being once again just as when we were united as one.

I feel him in our traditions, Christmas gifts, and each meal we prepare, bless and eat at our table. This is the Liturgy of Life, the Sacramental Life.

But there is great sorrow.

The place where joy and sorrow exist is right there on the altar, right there in a family picture, where life and death exist.

Joy and sorrow live right there on the altar, with a baby in a manger and a man on a cross because that Savior died for us to redeem all of it.

I long for the day our family photo speaks a different story.

Only Heaven can make it right.

Until then, we find our way to show up in even our imperfections, brokenness, sorrow, and awkwardness.

We show up for one another, clinging to each other (and the cross), trying to find our way balancing ourselves in a picture and in life when someone we served, cared for, laughed with, who led and protected our family fiercely and loved us unconditionally all the way to eternity is no longer here on this side of Heaven.

We eke out smiles when it feels right because there still is so much joy and life to be lived.

We shed tears when we need them to wash over the pain. A writer friend and fellow griever reminded me last week, “Tears are the sacred expression; death was never part of the plan.” May we remember Jesus, in his humanity was moved to tears when Mary wept over Lazarus even when He knew Lazarus would soon be raised from the dead. It’s okay to cry, The Gift of Tears is a post for another day

We lean into each other as we comfort and console and return to a tiny infant who becomes our Savior who never leaves, no matter how many times we abandon him.

We take the photo in our awkwardness to remember the moments we celebrate a newborn king in our joy and sorrow because his compassion and passion redeem all of it.

His comfort brings joy to our pain.

“At Christmas Christ comes to us like a little child, small and helpless, so much in need of all that love can give. Are we ready to receive Him?”

St Mother Teresa

May you know the peace of Christ this year.

With love and gratitude from our family to yours.

Thank you for the prayers, love and support as our we journey this unknown and awkward path of grief.


Today I am dedicating this post and my heart to hold space and honor what would be our 26th anniversary on December 27th. The more I write, the more I see where God is weaving his mercy and grace and unbelievable peace and glory through our lives both then and now, in our sorrow and in our joy.

While I know Jon is not here on this side of the heaven, I look at my veil in this photo and see the veil that was lifted on my wedding day. The veil between Heaven and earth is ever so thin.

And speaking of a veil— it makes sense that widows once wore a veil to accompany their weeping, grief and mourning so to cover their faces to express sensitivity to the reactions and judgements from others in our pain. Please forgive the widows who have not met your expectations as you try to comfort them. There is often awkwardness in grief that no one understands and we are just doing our very best to encounter each new day

May you know the peace and joy of Christ now and always.

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