Families are a key feature during this time of year, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Yule.  Each of these celebrations mark the coming together of families – both in religious and relational ways.  Your family is who you make it, those who celebrate together, those who commiserate together, those who build you up and make you a better person.

In more “Gregorian” terms, it’s also the end of the calendar year.  It’s a time when companies sum up their fiscal gains (or losses) for the year, a time when we all make New Year’s resolutions (which we frequently break), and when we celebrate (or commiserate) about another year completed.  It’s a time for reflection and for marking the closure of one season and the opening of a new one.

For me, this time of year is about family and marking the passage of time.

In my life, family means my wife, my father and mother, and the plethora of aunts, uncles, and cousins who inhabit my family tree.  However, as I got older, my family has grown to include close friends, my in-laws and their respective families, several coworkers, and the inevitable inclusion of new children.  But, my family has also shrunken over the years.

Several years ago, we lost my grandparents in what feels like rapid succession.  They were the cornerstone on which I built the idea of “family.”  This was very painful, but you console yourself with the knowledge that they left you with such a family that you can survive the pain.  Some part of you always knew that you’d outlive them and whether you were ready or not, that part of you was preparing to let go.

However, it was years before – in November of 2001 - when we suddenly lost my younger brother, Kenny.  Ken passed away two weeks before Thanksgiving.  This remains the single most painful thing in my life and it still influences me to this day.  When we finally got to Thanksgiving, we gathered, ate, and celebrated, because that’s what we were expected to do, but it was hollow.  All that I kept recalling was a line from A Christmas Carol: “I see an empty chair where Tiny Tim once sat.”

It was also this time of year where I remember first hearing (and hating) the phrase, “count your blessings.”  Needless to say, I wasn’t listening to anyone who said these things.  I would hold it together during the times with others, and privately rage when alone.  This went on and on for about a month.

Then the holidays came along and being the first year after we lost my brother, it was important to continue the farce that was celebrating the holidays.  We did what we always did as a family – watched our Christmas movies.  For us, this is A Christmas Story (1983) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  The former is my father’s favorite and we watch for the humor of the holidays.  The latter is my mom’s favorite and we watch to restore our faith in humanity.  As a family, we’ve seen both of these movies dozens of times and we know many (if not most) of the lines.

We ran through A Christmas Story and the laughs were half-hearted.  Not because the Bumpus hounds tearing apart the turkey wasn’t funny, or because “Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra” wasn’t politically incorrect comedy gold, but because there was a voice and a laugh missing.  And that silence echoed throughout the house and within me.

Then it was time for the next movie.  The title alone set my teeth on edge that year.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Really?  Are you sure?  How can it be with this “empty chair” that’s going to be here for the rest of our life?  (The movie is from 1946, but I’ll do my nerd diligence: Spoiler Alert.)

The movie opens with the fanfare for all movies of those years, celebrated in all its black & white glory.  George’s life is falling apart.  His house is in shambles, his kids are needy, his uncle may have just destroyed the family business his father built, and everyone is relying on him for something.  Everything that was going wrong in the world had one common denominator – George.  Needless to say, I felt like George Bailey that year – up to and including the part where I didn’t want to be born.  If I wasn’t born, then I’d never have to experience this loss, this pain, this emptiness.

Then George gets his intervention.  God sends down a (probationary) angel to help him out in the form of Clarence.  And George gets his wish.  He can see what the world would be like without him.

The ripples are astounding.  If he wasn’t there, the family business would have failed years before, his uncle would end up destitute, his mother would run a flop house, the town would be under the thumb of crotchety old Mr. Potter, and his family would never have existed.

But the one thing that hit me the most was that his brother, Harry, would have died in a river since George wasn’t there to save him.  I distinctly remember getting hit with so many emotions during this announcement that I was utterly silent.  His brother was gone, all the things that his brother did with his life (specifically in the war) never happened.  I reflected on my own situation, everything that my brother could have done in his life would never happen.

Finally, George gets clarity, he wants to live.  Regardless of what’s falling down around him, he wants to live.  The world was a better place with him, than without.  Suddenly, I was no longer George Bailey, Ken was George Bailey.  The loss of him was terrible and would have lasting ramifications, but the time that we did have was precious.  The closing of the movie always brings me to tears, but that year it was the worst that it’s ever been.  The entire town, every single person that tangentially had a relationship with George, came to help.  Every person who had been blessed by his touch was returning the blessing.

This is also when “count your blessings” stopped becoming a pain point for me and became a lifeline.  I looked around and saw my family.  Although Ken was no longer with us, the love and laughter that he brought to our lives would always be.  I looked into the eyes of my family and I saw him looking back.

Regardless of what’s happened in your life, at this time of year, take the time and count your blessings.  Even when the deck seems stacked against you, even when the rug has been pulled out from under you, even when everything seems spinning out of control, take a moment and truly look around.  There are great things in your life.  We are all blessed, even if we don’t always feel it.