There’s no denying it! The Christmas season is upon us! And, though it didn’t last, the winter wonderland that made its bold appearance well before December, put some of us in the mood for it. As more and more twinkly lights appear, and Christmas music plays in stores and on the radio, the cheer of the season gets inside of me. I love the thrill of Christmas, with happy sounds in the air, and beauty all around.
Unfortunately, for many people, the season is one of the most difficult of the year. With festivities and ‘happiness’ everywhere, to them it is a bold declaration of loss, a reminder of pain and grief. Often unacknowledged. This can be the result of any number of losses—whether the death of a loved one, loss of employment, or family abuse and violence—all of which deserve acknowledgement—but, for the purpose of this column, and not to diminish other losses, I will focus on the loss of innocence, through sexual abuse. While many thrill at having parties and family gatherings to attend at Christmas, for victims of sexual abuse these events often cause anxiety and panic attacks. As adults get together with their siblings and parents, their children who have been abused by these family members, dread it. And, because there is so much cover-up and secrecy surrounding abuse, the victims often carry the anxiety in silence, unable and unwilling to disrupt family ‘peace’.
This need to protect family ‘peace’ at all cost, is something that is ‘caught’ more than taught, as the pain of victims is overlooked, often starting in early childhood. When ‘Uncle Joe’ comes by, and little Sarah doesn’t want to say ‘hi’, shake his hand, or give him a hug, mom and dad are quick to insist on being polite, and force the interaction or even punishing her, without so much as a thought that maybe Sarah is justifiably afraid of Uncle Joe. When little Jason doesn’t want to sit on Grandpa’s knee, or throws a fit when aunt Mandy wants to take him for a walk, the same coaxing or discipline is applied. Rather than taking children aside, and exploring their feelings and fears, we force ‘niceness’. As a result, many years later, that same forced niceness continues, as does the loneliness of dealing with sexual victimization. Both parties—victims and perpetrators—act as if nothing ever happened. And victims shed lonely tears after the gatherings, or, worse, simply shut down.
Adding to the confusion is the religious focus of Christmas, and celebrating the birth of the Messiah, all while the sins of fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, cousins and neighbours, remain carefully cloaked. The sin that this Holy Child supposedly came to save us from, is protected at all costs. This begs the question, did Jesus really die for that sin or do we believe, somehow, that it is one sin He can’t handle? Or, more likely, do we excuse the sin and overlook the devastating impact? Either way, the wonder of the Christ-child is lost behind shadows of shame, false guilt, and emotional angst, leaving victims feeling abandoned by God and angry with Him. Rather than stirring love, and ‘goodwill toward man’ the Christmas season becomes a burden.
It is not uncommon for me to receive emails and messages from abuse victims, this time of year, sharing the pain, grief and loss they feel, and the dread of needing to attend family events. It isn’t self-pity; it is deep trauma. Most victims long for one thing, more than anything, and that is to have the burden of silence lifted, their pain acknowledged, and to have the abuser say, “I’m so sorry for robbing you of innocence. It was my fault. I have no excuses.” For many, this is the gift they long for most, this season.
If you have victimized someone, sexually, consider taking ownership for your crime this Christmas. Find a mediator to communicate with the victims, so that you don’t add further trauma, and tell them you are sorry, offering no excuses for your crime, and without demanding forgiveness. It won’t undo the past. It won’t ‘fix’ the victim’s ongoing trauma. But it will give him or her permission to grieve, without self-blame for something you did against them. It will be awkward, for a while, but you’ll stop tripping over the elephant in the room, all decorated with Christmas lights and superficial festivities, and discover the real meaning of the season.
(For the Elmira Independent: December 4. 2014)
© Trudy Metzger
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