Dan Liljenquist: Meaning of Christmas can fix broken hearts

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

The tragedy at Shady Hook Elementary has shaken all of us. We are mourning for the little ones who were murdered. We are mourning for the courageous women who ran into danger and sacrificed their bodies and lives to shield the children they loved. We are mourning with the parents, grandparents, siblings and families of those slain, comprehending to a small degree the terror and despair they must be suffering. The grieving process is just beginning.

Tragedies happen all of the time — every family I know has lost loved ones. But for some reason, this tragedy seems crueler than almost any other. In addition to the horror and unimaginable loss (of innocence, of potential, of peace), it seems all the more devastating coming this close to Christmas. How can these families possibly feel joy again? How will they go on?

These questions are in essence the questions I once asked myself as a little boy on a Christmas night 30 years ago. I was eight years old that Christmas morning in 1982, playing with the gifts I had received when I heard my mother's screams. I ran towards the commotion and found my mother and sisters administering CPR to my baby brother Stephen. He was six months old and the joy of our family. Stephen drowned in the bathtub in just a few inches of water. His death seemed to stop time. That Christmas night, I sat by myself in our playroom, staring at my new toys. I remember thinking "what a waste." Looking back, my childhood ended that day.

Despite their overwhelming grief, my parents refused to allow our tragedy to tear our family apart. Instead, our suffering united us and bound us together. My parents taught us the true meaning of Christmas, and in our despair, we turned our hearts heavenward. Looking back, while we could not see the Lord's hand in Stephen's death, we were not left comfortless.

The first anniversary of Stephen's death was very difficult. On that Christmas day, we chose to spend the day searching for the Christmas spirit. We turned Christmas day into a day of service — visiting the sick and the lonely, delivering homemade bread or rice-crispy treats to dear friends and loved ones. Santa Claus visited our home the day after Christmas. A new tradition was born, and for the last 28 years, we have celebrated Christmas this way.

It took a long, long time for joy to return to our home, but gradually, imperceptibly, it came. I learned at an early age that while the sun sets, the sun also rises. Sorrow and pain have their season, but hope comes with the morning. My mother never fully recovered from the sadness of that day, but she never gave up hope. She passed away in February of this year. We miss her but smile to think that she will get to celebrate this Christmas with her baby boy.

Last Friday, I came home to children stunned and stoic about the shootings. I held my own kindergartener close to me. He looked up at me and said with a soft voice "somebody came into a kindergarten class and killed all the kids." His voice wavered as he spoke, and a look of sadness, fear and puzzlement was etched in his face. I did not know what to say. So I reminded him of why we celebrate Christmas. May God bless the broken hearted this Christmas season.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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