A Hug From 20 Years Ago

A Hug From 20 Years Ago

A week after my 18th birthday, I boarded a plane that would take me to Ecuador for a year. A picture was taken that day at the airport – a picture of me hugging my 11-year-old sister. It was our goodbye hug. She barely reached my shoulders.

I cried a lot that day. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have cried harder. Because it turns out that goodbye hug was actually a goodbye to ever living near my sister. It’s twenty years later, and since that day at the airport, my sister and I have never lived near each other, usually thousands of miles apart. I missed her high school and college graduations. I barely knew the man she married, even though they dated for years. I don’t think I’ve been with her on her birthday since she turned 11. And then of course, there are all of the holidays we haven’t shared.

This year my sister, her husband, and two daughters moved closer (still not close) to us. They are now a nine-hour drive away, and so we planned to spend Thanksgiving together with just our two families. 

My sister and I were going to cook a feast. We both love to cook and bake. I have a brand new dining room table that we were going to christen together, all ten of us around one table. We were going to do home pedicures with our girls. I planned a whole cousins’ tea party for my daughter’s birthday the day after Thanksgiving.    

But one week before Thanksgiving, my sister called. You know where this is going. As a nurse working on COVID front lines, it was clear that with cases dramatically increasing that she needed to stay home for Thanksgiving.

I was crushed. I knew all along there was a chance COVID could cancel our Thanksgiving, but I was so eagerly anticipating time with my sister. I didn’t let my mind go there. Of all the things canceled in 2020, this is the only one I’ve shed tears over.

As I processed my disappointment, I realized it wasn’t just about one Thanksgiving and one birthday tea party. It was grieving 20 years of separation. It was acknowledging the pain of not sharing life with my sister, of not raising our children together.

If you’ve watched The Mandalorian Star Wars series, you know that one sect of the Mandalorians never take their helmets off in front of others. They live as individual nomads. They are fighters, warriors always on the hunt. When people ask them about their lifestyle, about the sacrifices they make, the Mandalorians have a phrase they use to respond. They simply say, “This is the way.” That’s it. They even repeat the phrase to one another as both encouragement and accountability. 

Why do they do what they do? “This is the way.”

It sounds strikingly familiar, doesn’t it?

Why do we sacrifice life close to family? This is the way.

Why do we give up grandparent babysitting, niece and nephew snuggles, cousin bonding, and sister time? This is the way.

Why do we miss funerals and weddings and birthdays and holidays? This is the way. 

This is the way God has called and invited us to, perhaps for a season, perhaps for a lifetime. Either way, the cost is real. The cost is felt.  

While the world is reeling this holiday season, we acknowledge that separation and distance from our family are griefs with which we are well acquainted. That doesn’t mean, however, that we were prepared for them this year. 

Maybe you’re one of many who didn’t plan to be in your passport country this season. You thought the silver lining would be spending holidays with family and friends. Instead, Christmas parties are canceled and you are doing family Zoom calls just like you would have done if you were across the world. Is that you during this holiday season?

Maybe you’re in your host country and you are grieving a canceled family visit. Maybe the team or local traditions you love are not happening this month. Maybe you’re weary of this weird season of waiting, not knowing when you’ll be able to return. Maybe the community you lean on has unraveled this year. Maybe you’re experiencing a loneliness you’ve never known.  

I could conclude this post talking about how Jesus is worth it. Or about how disappointment and separation should make us eagerly anticipate the joy and togetherness of heaven. Those are good truths.

But honestly? Those truths don’t always help in the moment when the pain is stinging and the tears are flowing. Dare I say it?  They can feel a bit cliché.

What do we need in those stinging, tear-stained moments?   

What do we truly need?

An experience with Jesus. 

Can I tell you about mine? 

A few hours after my sister called to cancel our Thanksgiving, I had a session with my spiritual director. In the quiet space she created for me, I sat in the presence of Jesus. In a moment that feels almost too intimate to share, Jesus held my heart.

He held my pain, my tears. He held my disappointment, my longing. No words, just presence. Just with-ness

He sees. He knows. 

He cares. He holds.

He’s Immanuel. He’s God With Me.

No circumstance changed. No problem was solved. I came away from that time still sad, but with a different kind of sadness, one filled with peace. 

Perhaps you need to hear from God, or rather feel from him today. Can I extend his invitation to you? To be with him in the stillness? 

To help still your mind, perhaps a breath prayer would help. 

Breathe in… Immanuel.

Breathe out… God with me.

Allow the presence and hands of God to hold your heart. 

What disappointments and longings are you carrying this Christmas?

We’re here to hold space for you.

How is Jesus meeting you this season?


  1. Corella December 18, 2020

    Such tender and relatable thoughts, Danielle. Thank you for sharing! And, look, I made the same breath prayer to go with an Advent devotional this year. 🙂

    1. Danielle Wheeler December 18, 2020

      That’s so great! Beautiful image. Definitely a precious breath prayer in this season…and always. ❤️

  2. RL December 19, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this! It’s what I needed to hear this morning.

  3. Kristen January 2, 2021

    Thank you so much for writing this. It really helped to put words to the feeling of loss / separation from a life near my sister and raising our kids side by side. Lots of things to mourn and grieve… and I am thankful for your prayer you shared and the invitation to be with Jesus.

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