That Christmas We Grieved

Updated Dec 10, 2014
That Christmas We Grieved
Christmas is the time where we celebrate Immanuel, His entry into our mess and grief, His huge step from heaven to earth.

Two and a half years ago, the unthinkable happened. My friend, a beautiful young mom of two, went missing.

One average but luscious mid-summer evening, she attended a women’s Bible study at my house. By the end of the night, after we had closed in prayer, there were tears in her eyes. “I need to spend more time with Jesus,” she said.

That was the last time I ever saw her. An agonizing two months later, her body was found. And the police charged her husband with first-degree murder. Our church community teetered in shock.

The day after his arrest, her husband—her alleged murderer—phoned us from prison. “Will you take care of our boys?” he asked, his voice cracking.

My husband Andrew and I stared at each other, dumbfounded. Our own two children were nearing their preteen years. Were they ready to accept a new set of siblings into the family? In a fog of grief, we prayed for clarity. Yes. The clarity came. Our children would be mature enough to handle the change. We would obey God’s command to care for orphans. Amidst a whirlwind of transition and uncertainty, we agreed to grow our family overnight from four to six.

We had no idea what we were getting into.

My friend was an only child and she had left two grieving parents. Her husband was an only child as well. Now that he had been incarcerated, he also left behind two grieving parents. So this was their family remnant: two sets of grieving grandparents and two very hurt, very adorable toddler boys. Andrew and I found ourselves thrown into the middle of a chaotic storm of hurt, betrayal, and loss.

The maternal grandparents hoped to eventually adopt their two grandsons. The paternal grandparents hoped for Andrew and I to adopt their two grandsons. Andrew and I just hoped for God’s will to be done.

But God’s will isn’t always a clear-cut path. Stuck in the middle of a very intense, emotional conflict of interests, Andrew and I hung on by a thread. We depended on God by the second. God promised that He would cover us with His feathers; we took Psalm 91 as a banner.

Meanwhile, the boys settled in well to the rhythms of life in our household. After the initial shock of grief and transition (after which they finally began sleeping and eating well), the boys began to develop loving and strong attachments with our family, friends and neighbors while continuing to visit with their grandparents on both sides.

As Christmas approached, the disagreement between the two sets of grandparents escalated. All too often, it felt like we were walking through a battle zone, complete with landmines and stray bullets. We were caught in a crossfire of hurtful words where distrust brewed further distrust. We didn’t want to disrupt the boys’ progress in our home by traumatizing them again with any big moves. So as December rolled around, we naturally tried to include both sets of grandparents into our Christmas plans.

Together with our foster sons, we decorated the tree, visited Santa and participated in the church pageant. We hung ornaments, baked goodies and wrapped presents. The boys also caught the typical winter colds that children their age tend to catch, and got into typical brotherly scraps. The ‘typicality’ of it all was actually an unnerving comfort compared to the larger traumas we’d all dealt with several months back. Christmas and winter colds seemed to restore a sense of anticipation and normalcy.

With Christmas, one expects warm-fuzzies, rest and re-connection. That year, we got the opposite. Christmas is often a time of contention for extended family. There’s Andrew’s side; there’s my side. Holiday time allocation is a tricky affair—this year, we had to add two more sides into the mix!

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years’ Day were the big three. Everyone wanted a piece of the children on those special days. We spent hours discussing who would spend time with the children and when. Once we had hammered those details out, Andrew and I decided to host a big Christmas dinner where all could drop their arguments and come together to celebrate.

Dinner got cold while we waited for the maternal grandparents to show up. They did not speak English and we had to communicate via translators. As it turned out, the language barrier had done short work of sabotaging the dinner half of the evening; a series of frantic phone calls and text messages revealed that they only ever planned to come for dessert, not for dinner.

Now we had intended for the night to be a gift-opening gala for the boys. Instead, the maternal grandparents decided to give their gifts privately. Miscommunication reigned supreme. My picture of one big happy family fizzled into a long evening of awkward pauses and shallow pleasantries.

At the end of the night, Andrew and I collapsed on the couch. The whole evening, one nasty unspoken question had hovered over the party: Who deserves custody of the children?

But is that the right way to frame the question? What about the children? What do they deserve? They deserve to know Christ. They need peace. Stability. Routine. The regular involvement of all their extended family. Now, two years later, the boys no longer live in our home. And I continue to bring their needs to God in prayer.

Looking back, I think Andrew and I were able to embrace pain that year. I hope we were able to negotiate the crossfire with tact, wisdom and gentleness. I pray that all involved were able to view our home as a safe, neutral and nurturing place.

That Christmas, we entered the messiness of humanity and experienced the rippling effects of sin. And I see the parallel now — Christmas is the time where we celebrate Immanuel, the coming of Christ, His entry into our mess and His huge step from heaven to earth. He came in a manger and He embraced our pain.

This is why Christ came: to bring peace on earth.  Cautiously, I follow in His footsteps, believing the truth in His Word: Blessed be the peacemakers.

Even when the peacemakers can barely see one step ahead in the fog.

Published: December 2013

Julia Cheung Headshot Julia Cheung is a cultural analyst and journalist of relationships, always on the lookout for stories of beautiful misfits. She lives in Vancouver BC with the loveable motley crew of her pastor husband and two preteen children.  She is a bundle of antitheses, a lover of truth, a teller of tales,  a too often emotional egoist and a fervently curious anti-narcissist. You can find her online at