By Emily Wiles

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I was a champion seeker in the game of hide and seek. I had an uncanny ability to uncover even the most elusive hiding spots with precision. However, when it was my turn to hide, impatience would get the better of me. I would often aid the seeker in finding me through my squirms and giggles. Then I’d want to help find the other hiders as soon as possible. My determination and acute perception made me an expert at locating not only hidden people, but hidden or lost items.

Over the years, my seeking skills have grown stronger. I’m the one who can find a dropped contact lens, hidden Christmas presents and missing sunglasses (usually those are resting on top of my head). I find joy in knowing all are present and accounted for.

During the holidays, we can be keenly aware of who isn’t present, as much as who is. Although some of our loved ones may need to work over the holidays or be occasionally absent, for me it’s been the continuous absence of those who have been gone for years.

Grief is universal. How we process it—the symptoms and reactions we experience—is unique. Grief encompasses a variety of situations: missed opportunities, a job loss, disappointments, unfulfilled dreams, and the absence of cherished friends and family who once filled our lives with joy.

In a way, grief is rooted in impatience. When we grieve, we search relentlessly for the connection and the relationship that once was. We long for their renewed presence in our lives.

My grief has always been multifaceted. My childhood memories of loved ones include the way my uncle would dress up like Santa Claus—even though his disguise fooled no one, and the way my grandfather would always ask if I was finally taking up the accordion, to which I’d respond that fortunately or unfortunately, I was not. But though I hold fond memories of other dear ones, I have no memories of my mom, who died from cancer when I was an infant.

It is an odd feeling to miss what cannot be remembered. As a child who often played hide-and seek, I sought my mom’s connection and presence in much the same way. I clung to the fanciful idea that my mother was simply hiding, tucked away in some unseen corner or under a bed, eagerly waiting for my deft skills to find her.

While memories of other blessed saints fill me with the bittersweet joy of remembrance, within me there is also an enigmatic void. My mother is an intangible mystery—one I have always sought to know. Seeing a mere picture of my mom, noticing that I share her smile, serves as a tender balm until the day when my search will culminate in finding her at last.

This is how my grief manifests, in an impatient pursuit of what could have been or what could be. Sometimes I’m filled with bittersweet joy. Sometimes it’s plain bitter sorrow. As a child, sometimes I wanted to hide during the holidays. Then, as now, it comforted me to read in the gospels that Jesus himself wanted to retreat to a deserted place to find moments of communion with God. Sometimes that is what we need in our grief too— time with our dear ones.

Over the years, I have come to experience these moments of grief as a gift. Yes, grief follows at the end of a loved one’s earthly life. Grief is also what happens in the intermediate time. And surprisingly enough, grief is also a beginning—an advent.

During the season of Advent, we recognize that while Christ is not with us as he once was, he’s also not present with us as he will be. Advent is like a game of hide-and-seek. We know for whom we’re searching. We get caught off guard if they show up in unexpected ways. And there’s nothing like the joy of finding or being found.

Our grief can give us insight into God’s grief. When we do not grieve, we block a chance to participate in God’s grace, to discover the surprises of God’s love made manifest.

I see grief as a constant companion born out of love—just as our Lord Jesus was born out of God’s incomprehensible love for the world. God so grieved the distance between us and God (a distance that felt like a loss of God’s people) that God sent Jesus into the world so that we would be connected once more.

Grieving can mean telling our family stories, baking and sharing our ancestors’ recipes, affirming that Christ is present in the fellowship of believers. Grieving can mean losing a job and discovering joy in acquiring a new role and restoring a sense of balance. Grieving can mean receiving a new medical diagnosis, but having resilience and the support of dear ones to build on what once was, so that hope shines through at a difficult time.

Whenever we lean into loss to seek the ways God is calling us forward in faith, we testify to the work of God, who will make all things new.

In the stories of Advent, God shows up unexpectedly. God turns destruction into hope when the temple falls in Jerusalem (Mark 13). In the work of John the Baptist, God points to a reality greater than we could have imagined (Mark 1:7-8). When the psalmist and the prophets think that all is lost, God shows up. We see God showing up in Mary’s vulnerable strength and trust that God will fulfill God’s promises (Luke 1).

In our grief, what bigger promise do we seek than God showing up, with our loved ones in tow? As Christians, we do not grieve as people without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We grieve as people of hope—hope that God will fulfill God’s promises. With deft determination, we can seek the ways God fulfills God’s promise to turn our mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11).

Just as there’s joy in finding a missing contact lens or a hidden childhood friend, there is joy in discovering the ways God turns my mourning into dancing. Unexpected glimmers of hope come with a whiff of homemade apple pie that reminds me of my great-grandmother, a glimpse of a slender Santa, the sounds of an accordion, or my own laughter, which is a reminder that I’ve been told I have my mother’s laugh, making me want to laugh even more.

I’m sad that my dear ones aren’t with me as they once were; yet faith says that they aren’t with us as they will be either. We are on the cusp of a new reality, but now we have only glimpses. I’m impatient for those glimpses.

The season of Advent reminds me to seek hope in the ebb and flow of grief. It reminds me that I can hold God accountable for those promises in scripture. God’s stories—our stories—illuminate the unlimited possibilities of God’s grace. Even when love feels distant, even when our loved ones seem hidden, God shows us how to find hope that carries us into joy.

The Rev. Emily Wiles works for the ELCA in new ministry development and evangelism. She believes that joy comes in the morning, no matter how stormy the night.

This article appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Gather. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.