(How to Navigate Grief During the Holidays)
The holidays can be grueling when we are navigating a world of grief. The season’s sights and sounds serve as painful reminders of our loss and subsequent suffering. Our Christmas memories turn bittersweet in the wake of our tears, and our resolve to smile through the festivities starts to crumble.
How do we survive?
I recently asked a close friend that volunteers for GriefShare this question. (For those of you unfamiliar with GriefShare, it is a highly recommended recovery program for those grieving the loss of loved ones.) I also asked my friend about her own grief journey, which she answered with admirable transparency. I quickly noticed a common thread running through her answers. The thread wasn’t grief; it was grace.
Here are the grace-filled tips, which she offered:
Remember that grief is normal and unavoidable. Reminders of our loved ones are everywhere, especially during the holidays.
- The stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—aren’t linear. In other words, we don’t experience these emotions in a specific order or time. They hit us like a vortex spinning out of control when we least expect it. That’s why the next point is so important; it’s why we need a plan.
Develop a holiday survival plan before the holidays arrive.
- Anticipate the emotional ambushes or trigger points that will cause you to dissolve into tears. These are the things that serve as poignant and painful reminders of your loss and/or loved one, including family traditions, festive decorations, Christmas carols, holiday scents and special foods.
For example, how are you going to react when you unpack the now faded stocking you knitted for your son’s first Christmas or smell the scent of fresh fir boughs, which your husband loved?
- Identify difficult social hurdles, such as the church program, a family dinner, or the neighborhood caroling party. Remind yourself that you don’t have to do everything you used to do. You can respectfully decline these invitations. You may consider doing something different this year or starting a new tradition, such as treating yourself to your favorite restaurant or traveling during the holidays.
- Consider the role your loved one played and ask how the holidays will look different without them. For example, who is going to carve the Christmas turkey now that your brother is gone? Or how are you going to react when a different soprano than your wife sings “Silent Night”?
- Mentally prepare yourself for each situation. GriefShare recommends writing a response and rehearsing what to say when people ask how you are coping or when they make insensitive comments about your appearance.
- Take proper care of your health and wellbeing. This includes getting enough sleep, taking outdoor walks, bathing regularly, limiting the number of events on your calendar, and avoiding mind-numbing alternatives such as alcohol and pornography.
- Have an exit plan. For example, if you want to attend the Christmas Eve service but fear that you’ll begin to cry uncontrollably, don’t sit in the front pew. Position yourself in the back, so you can slip out comfortably.
If you plan on attending a social event, tell the host or hostess in advance that you probably can’t stay the whole time. When you are exhausted or you can’t take another sympathetic look, you can leave early without being pressured to stay or have anyone take offense.
- Identify people with whom you want to spend the holidays. Choose friends and family who are supportive and will remind you that you are going to make it.
Offer an abundance of grace to yourself and others.
- The first person to whom you need to offer grace is yourself. After all, you have experienced a tremendous loss. Determine your needs on a day-to-day basis. Give yourself the permission to laugh at one moment and cry the next.
Many of you may be facing medical bills and financial difficulties as a result of your loved one’s chronic illness. Give yourself grace by deciding that this may not be a year for elaborate gift giving. A card containing a loving message from you may be appreciated more than anything you can gift wrap.
- Give grace to the members of your family who are also grieving. Remember that their needs may differ from yours.
The first Christmas after her husband passed, my friend wanted to act as though December 25th was an “ordinary day on the calendar.” She didn’t want to decorate, and she certainly didn’t want to shop for presents. On the other hand, her children wanted to decorate the house and enjoy some semblance of a normal Christmas. My friend had to balance her needs with those of her sons.
- Give grace to those who don’t know what to say or do. Forgive them when their words seem heartless, insensitive, or cruel. Be honest about your feelings. Let them know whether or not you want to talk about your loved one. Show and teach them that grief is a journey; one that they, too, will someday walk.
Pray for God’s help in surviving the holidays. If you can’t be honest with yourself or your family and friends, then be truthful with God.
Christmas isn’t about the sights and sounds of the season, and it’s not about carols or stockings or mounds of presents under the tree. Christmas is about a single Gift, and his name is Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. So…
- When you can’t bear the thought of another soloist replacing your wife in the church choir, God is with you.
- When you don’t know who is going to cut the Christmas turkey, God is with you.
- When you can’t bear the sight of a knitted stocking or smell the freshly cut pine, God is with you.
God’s promises are sure and true. “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
God promises to “wipe away every tear from (your) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
You can trust him to carry you through this time of grief, because he is Immanuel, God with us.
*For those of you who are burdened with loss this holiday season, I urge you to look at the information available on Grief Share’s website (www.griefshare.org) or call them at 800-395-5755. Please consider joining a weekly group in your area.
**A special thanks to my friend for spending her afternoon talking with me about grief. I love you dearly; I am blessed to call you friend.