Loss and Hope at Advent

President George H.W. Bush and his daughter Dorothy at Camp David in 1991. Photo courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library.

By Steve Beard –

“Growing up, Christmas was about tamales, guacamole, caroling, and cousin skits,” writes Jenna Bush Hager in Southern Living, a magazine where she serves as editor at large in addition to her work on The Today Show. “But mostly, it was all about family, and it centered around our grandparents, our North Stars.”

Hager’s fond memories of a Tex-Mex-infused holiday is not surprising since she was raised in The Lone Star State. She is one of the daughters of President George W. (43) and Laura Bush and the granddaughter of the recently deceased President George H.W. (41) and Barbara Bush – the North Stars.

For most of us, this is the time of year we focus on family, food, and our faith. As stressful as the Christmas season can be (and it usually is), in its finest moments it is supposed to be a joyous time of gift-giving, carol-singing, and spending time with rarely-seen relatives.

Uniquely, George H.W. and Barbara Bush celebrated every Christmas for 38 years with the Secret Service. Some of the memorable stories during President Bush’s recent funeral at the beginning of Advent was from retired agents who testified to the President’s compassion, humility, and kindness. Even as the leader of the free world, those around him said that he was always thinking about others and their families.

“During the holidays, on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, while he was in the White House, while they were out of the White House, they never left the residence,” reported Robert Caltabiano, a retired Secret Service agent who protected the Bush family.

“They would stay there on the holiday, and the reason why was because they didn’t want us, the Secret Service, and other people to have to travel and go away from our families. That tells you a lot about who they were.”

Small gestures of kindness at this time of year tend to cast large shadows of meaning.

In her remembrance of her beloved grandparents, Hager recalls driving to Camp David, the Presidential retreat in Maryland, on Christmas Eve to celebrate with her family. “I’m nostalgic for the days when we were together,” writes Hager. “This time of year is full of love, but for those who have recently lost someone, that loss is illuminated.”

Decades ago, her grandparents experienced gut-wrenching loss when Robin, their three-year-old daughter, died of leukemia in 1953. As a young father, Bush wrote to his own mother five years after Robin’s death to express his grief:

“There is about our house a need. There is a running, pulsating restlessness of the four boys as they struggle to learn and grow; the world embraces them … all this wonder needs a counterpart. We need some starched crisp frocks to go with all our torn-kneed blue jeans and helmets. We need some soft blond hair to offset those crew cuts. We need a legitimate Christmas angel… We need a girl.”

Bush continued: “We had one once. She’d fight and cry and play and make her way just like the rest but there was about her a certain softness. She was patient. Her hugs were just a little less wiggly. But she is still with us. … We can’t touch her and yet we can feel her.”

Shortly thereafter, new life emerged for the young Bushes. Dorothy, their second daughter, was born the following year. Their hearts had been devastated and their faith was tested. They rejoiced in the birth of Doro, their newborn daughter. The Bushes, however, never forgot Robin – treasured forever in their hearts.

This year, the rest of the Bush family will miss their North Stars. Their family holiday will resemble the Christmases of many families – empty seats around the table and quirky traditions that just won’t feel the same. That is what happens when we experience profound loss. There’s no easy fix, no gift under the tree that will take away the sting. We are simply invited to treasure the moments we shared with loved ones who are now gone – and we look forward to the way life will unfold in the future. Ancient wisdom teaches us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn – even at Christmas.

The hope of Advent. When he was in the White House, President Bush (41), a devout Episcopalian, prepared a beautiful reflection on the hope of Advent. “At Christmas, we celebrate the promise of salvation that God gave to mankind almost 2,000 years ago. The birth of Christ changed the course of history, and His life changed the soul of man,” he wrote.

“Christ taught that giving is the greatest of all aspirations and that the redemptive power of love and sacrifice is stronger than any force of arms. It is testimony to the wisdom and the truth of these teachings that they have not only endured but also flourished over two millennia.”

Bush concluded by highlighting the life of Jesus, the centerpiece of Advent. “By His words and by His example, Christ has called us to share our many blessings with others. As individuals and as a Nation, in our homes and in our communities, there are countless ways that we can extend to others the same love and mercy that God showed humankind when He gave us His only Son,” the President wrote. “During this holy season and throughout the year, let us look to the selfless spirit of giving that Jesus embodied as inspiration in our own lives – giving thanks for what God has done for us and abiding by Christ’s teaching to do for others as we would do for ourselves.”

Merry Christmas.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

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