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The Christmas I remember most was the Christmas my daughter died

That Christmas is the one we focused the most on the Light of the World.

SHARE The Christmas I remember most was the Christmas my daughter died

A snow-covered tree is illuminated on the first night of the annual Christmas lights display at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

I remember the lights. I remember the snow and the blanket of peace that softly enveloped us the Christmas our daughter died. But mostly I remember the lights. 

Our daughter Elizabeth was born one very snowy night, Thanksgiving weekend. Seventeen years and two weeks later, she died on a bitterly cold December evening, 15 years ago. While the timing of her death was unanticipated, the fact that she would die relatively young was something we knew from the time she was born because of her multiple and severe disabilities. 

When doctors talked to us about her life expectancy, it went from a month, to a year, to four years to maybe 10. We were blessed with seven more. Because my husband and I had time to think about, talk about and plan for her eventual death, and because we had already buried a daughter 10 years previously, we had an idea of how we wanted to celebrate her life. 

One week after her 17th birthday, her body gave out and she was wracked with seizures that simply would not stop. Her doctor told us that this was the beginning of the end and she only had a few more days on this earth. We had hoped that perhaps “anticipatory grieving” would somehow lessen the blow when it actually came, but of course, it did not. 

We had one more week with her in what I can only describe as a sacred, holy time. We were surrounded by angels, seen and unseen. That week, my husband, Greg, built Lizzie’s casket, with the help of a neighbor skilled in woodworking. I sewed her burial dress from bridal fabric and faux fur. Our living children all traced their hands on paper and then gave the cut-outs to another friend of ours who used her embroidery machine to embroider those handprints on the satin lining her casket so she could go surrounded by loving hands. 

We held an old-fashioned wake in our home. Elizabeth’s body was in an open casket for those who wanted to pay their respects. Her empty wheelchair was parked in a corner with a placard I created that read, “Free at last, free at last.” After her funeral, we all followed the hearse to the cemetery, where, after the graveside service, we stayed to watch her casket lowered into the ground. Our family, especially our kids, needed that extra bit of closure. We blew bubbles in air that was so bitterly cold they froze before they hit the ground. It was one day before my birthday and eight days before Christmas.

Spending a Christmas season in deep sorrow suddenly made all the extraneous trappings fall away. It’s the only year we have ever hired someone to do outdoor Christmas lights — white lights on our roof and on our trees. White lights on simple trees inside. I don’t think we even got ornaments on the trees. Just lights. 

I sat and rocked children while we cried. I thought of Mary, rocking her tiny baby. I thought about how grateful I am that we are in Act 2 of a three-act play. I had religious Christmas music playing because it soothed our souls. 

Still, still, still. 

One can hear the falling snow.

For all is hushed, the world is sleeping

Holy Star its vigil keeping.

Still, still, still.

Our family was blanketed with love that year. I couldn’t even think about Christmas shopping. Didn’t the world know my daughter had just died? Maybe the world didn’t, but our neighbors did. They shopped and wrapped and delivered Christmas for us that year. 

Strange though it may sound, the Christmas my daughter died is the Christmas I remember with the most tenderness and the most gratitude. That Christmas is the one we focused the most on the Light of the World, on the promise of an empty tomb and on what matters most. I still miss my daughter. I still cry about her. But I also remember the tenderness and symbolism of a Christmas of lights.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy Daily and a Deseret News columnist.