Before you judge people too harshly for their lack of holiday spirit, consider the original Christmas Curmudgeon, Ebeneezer Scrooge. Not simply the tale of a greedy, cantankerous miser, Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” is a primer on unresolved grief.
With a history of painful losses, including mother, father, beloved sister Fan and the love of his life Belle, Scrooge epitomizes a classic case of cumulative grief. Some indicators that he struggled with complicated grief include his numbness and detachment from people and things around him, generalized bitterness, a sense that life is meaningless, a distrust of life and of others (humbug), and the inability to enjoy life or think back on positive experiences with loved ones. Unveiling what grief has stolen from him, three Christmastime Spirits offer him a way forward, exposing his past, present and future, not simply to judge, but to help him restore the joy of life he once knew. Dicken’s story of hope demonstrates that left unattended, grief can transform a happy, kind person into a fearful, controlling one. More importantly, Dicken’s teaches that integrating a loss into our life releases the pain of grief and allows us to heal.
It was grief that changed Scrooge from a serious-minded, happy young man to the village ogre. The armor Scrooge placed around his heart was an ill-fated attempt to protect himself from the pain of multiple losses. Unquestionably, at the core of his rude behavior is a broken heart. Scrooge’s unresolved grief is deadly to his soul, shuts him off from the world, fills his heart with fear, and manifests as ugly, excessive control of everything.
The opening lines of the story remind us that Scrooge’s partner and only friend, Marley, died seven years prior on Christmas Eve. For Scrooge, it was no doubt the straw that broke the camel’s back, sentencing him to a bah humbug approach to life. With an accumulation of devastating and deep losses, it was simpler for Scrooge to become skeptical, believing that life is not to be trusted, that Christmas, like other joys, is a sham.
Marley’s reappearance at Christmastime is a grace offered for healing – one thankfully, that Scrooge accepted. Marley, a figure of eternal agony, is symbolic of light that can be found even in grief’s darkness. Three spiritual visitations give Scrooge an opportunity to compassionately re-view his losses and be released from “grief overload.” Each visit helps him to let go of defenses he adopted to protect his heart.
With complicated grief it is crucial to discover how a loss has affected our past and present life. The Spirit of Christmas Past offers Scrooge a chance to revisit the significant losses he suffered as a young person. Encountering both the pain of his losses and the joy of his youth, the Spirit gently guides Scrooge to truth. As his journey to the past concludes, Dicken’s notes an important change in Scrooge:
“He tried to say Humbug! but stopped at the first syllable.”
As is characteristic of complicated grief, the transformation toward healing begins with an insight that almost instantaneously changes the way we see the world. When we embrace the darkness that the shadow of death has left on us, we are prepared to welcome the present. Sadly, for people who suffer from cumulative, complicated, or unresolved grief, this is a formidable and difficult transition.
As the Spirit of Christmas Present arrives, Scrooge greets him:
“Spirit,” said Scrooge submissively, “Conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I have learned a lesson which is working now. To-night if you aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”
Having compassionately viewed his past, Scrooge is eager for the present, but first the Spirit of Christmas Present exposes the consequences of Scrooge’s unresolved grief. The annual invitation to Christmas dinner from his nephew, and his uncle’s repetitious decline is a sure sign of the unresolved loss of his sister Fan, who at one point in his life was his only hope for resolving the loss of his parents. Dicken’s carefully crafted scenes at the homes of Fred, Scrooge’s nephew and Bob Cratchit his employee, take us deeply into the milieu of a grieving heart that has shut off any possibility of love for fear of losing it. Witnessing his nephew and employee Bob Cratchit’s goodwill for him, despite his atrocious behavior toward them, puts a considerable dent in the armor surrounding Scrooge’s heart.
More significantly, Scrooge makes peace with the losses of his inner child, and is instinctively drawn to Tiny Tim’s suffering:
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat” replied the ghost, in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die!”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit say he will be spared,”
The final Spirit, that of Christmas Yet to Come appears on schedule and offers Scrooge a glance at his eternal future. It surely is not pretty. This horrific vision forces Scrooge to relinquish the grief controlling his heart. Having done the grief work of understanding and embracing his many losses, he surrenders his grief.
When shown an overgrown, neglected grave, Scrooge says,
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the ghost pointed downward to the grave by which they stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. But if the courses be departed from them, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”
“Spirit,” he cried, tightly clutching its robe, “Hear me, I am not the man I was, I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this if I am past all hope?”
“I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future.”
Since 1843 The Christmas Carol has heralded the season’s purpose and meaning, reminding us that the season is a time to open our hearts, increase our giving, share our homes, and above all care for the poor and needy. For those who are grieving this holiday, I invite you to read this story with compassion for your own grief. Here are a few of the lessons I have learned from Scrooge’s grief journey:
- Each loss must be healthily integrated into our life
- There are always those near who see beyond our behavior into our hearts. These are the companions we need when we are grieving. Some are heavenly spirits who remain close to us; some are physically near–our neighbors, co-workers, or relatives.
- There is a significant difference between ghosts that haunt us and spirits that guide us, when grieving we need to appreciate the difference. The past will haunt us in hidden and mysterious ways if we do not embrace it.
- Loss is inevitable, healing is a choice ….a critical one.
- It is never too late to heal from a loss. Life always calls us to wholeness.
During this holiday time, we wish you moments of calm in the midst of pain.
We wish you the companionship of beloved people in the midst of loneliness.
We wish you healing as you endure these days.
Most of all, we wish you peace.
Miles Funeral Home
This blog entry is dedicated to the funeral directors at Miles Funeral Home who carefully help our families move through the early stages of grief.