How fast can an angry momma undress a Christmas tree? Quickly if the ornaments are hysterically thrown about the room. That’s how December began the year we received the text message from our prodigal child … “I’m not coming.”

Thankfully, nobody was home besides my husband—who gathered the ornaments almost as fast as I threw them. We shared the same hurt, but after the recent disappointment of a ruined Thanksgiving, we were obviously processing things differently.

For months it seemed we were on a roller coaster that wouldn’t stop—starting with the big drop of angry words, followed by the loop of ugly tears, then the uphill rise of tender insight from the Father where from the top we could see the glimmer of hope … and then we’d start the ride all over again.

It was exhausting.

Does this sound familiar? If so, I’m sorry. I’d like to tell you it will get better soon. That your prodigal will finally hit bottom and realize they need you back in their life. Isn’t that how the story in the Bible happened (Luke 15:11-32)?

This Christmas season, I want to remind you that while you’re waiting, time doesn’t stop. Life keeps happening, and you may have other family members looking for you to set the tempo this holiday.

We had another adult child with her own small family and a second baby on the way. And though they were all feeling the effects of the loss, too, we had to keep doing life together. We still had many blessings to celebrate—especially the hope we had through Jesus.

While you wait

Like the father in the parable, however, we continued to keep watch for the return of our prodigal. While we were waiting, we learned a few things. I hope these help you while you watch for your child’s return.

1. You’re going to need God’s wisdom and strength to get through this. God’s Word will give you the comfort you can’t find in anything or anyone else. The verses that gave me the most comfort were Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (emphasis mine). That promise of God’s peace guarding my heart and mind soothed me during the hardest days and nights. Pray and read your Bible to receive peace only He can give.

2. It may not be your fault they left, but don’t make it your fault they stay away. Jesus tells us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). This is where the lessons of grace and mercy are best learned.

3. Don’t expect everyone around you to understand everything you’re going through, especially if they’ve never been through it. Instead, give them specific things they can be praying for, such as joy around the Christmas dinner table despite the missing loved one.

4. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. When we finally stepped over our embarrassment and pride and began telling others our story, it was like first aid to our hearts. Many revealed their own prodigal stories. So many, in fact, we began thinking it was an epidemic hiding in the shadows of every family. It didn’t make it any less hurtful, but it’s true there is comfort in community (even if it’s not the community you chose to be in).

5. Use discernment when it comes to advice. You’ll get a lot of advice from well-meaning family and friends. Weigh the possible outcomes before acting on any of it. After all, they don’t know the situation (or your child) like you do.

6. Let your words rest overnight before sending them out, whether by text, letter, or direct conversation. Proverbs 18:21 says “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” It takes restraint to keep from saying something you’ll regret later.

7. Don’t air your dirt on social media. (Again, see #6.) It may be you need to take a temporary break from social media altogether, especially if you find yourself poking around on your child’s pages.

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8. Don’t allow hurt or envy to creep into your friendships. Be happy for your friends when they talk about their children’s latest experiences. If it becomes too hard to hear, gently excuse yourself from the conversation. Be sure to tell them later that you were having an emotional moment but still love hearing their stories.

9. Distance between you and your prodigal can be a blessing. Always worrying about running into your child in the community or hearing about them from friends and neighbors prevents you from moving forward. If this is not an option, then you may need to establish boundaries. For example, don’t be afraid to say “I’d rather not talk about it right now” when the topic turns toward your prodigal child.

10. Give yourself permission to skip certain family-focused events. In fact, go ahead and give yourself permission to skip church on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Family-centered holidays will be the hardest days of the year. Depending on what your church does at Christmas, this can also be a difficult time to attend. It’s okay to take a break from situations that add to your grief, but don’t let missing church become a habit. If you decide to go, allow your friends to enjoy the celebration without attending to your heartbreak. Slip out early if you must.

11. Don’t let your pride allow you to intentionally miss out on big events in your prodigal’s life, like a wedding or birth of a child. If you have been given the heads-up about the event—be there. Though they may not acknowledge it at the time, they’ll remember you were there for them. And sometimes, actions speak louder than words.

12. Repairing a relationship takes time and will never be exactly the same as before. Moments have been lost and life happened—for both sides. It will feel different than before, so don’t push for “normal.” Be open to a new normal.

The return

During the wait for our child to return, God kept taking us back to the parable of the prodigal son. We knew we must have been missing something He wanted us to see there … and then it became clear: The father never stopped watching for his son.

And when the son finally did saunter home, the father saw him coming and “felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

I have to admit, this was not how I envisioned our story ending.  We were harboring a lot of hurt and some pretty ugly self-righteousness. But the Lord was preparing us to offer forgiveness, even if we never got an apology. He taught us lessons in mercy and grace and forgiveness, and our son got a front row seat.

We now thank God the relationship with our prodigal has been renewed, but like the thrown ornaments, the cracks are still visible, the dried glue a little smeared, and the memories of brokenness remain forever. Two and a half years later, though—our prodigal is home, the embraces are mutual, and God’s peace remains.

I pray your story ends well, too.

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