FROM THE PASTOR’S DESK: The year was 1995. It was Thanksgiving Day and our family had gathered with Marilyn’s side of the family for the usual feast at her parents’ home in Campbell Hill. This year, however, was different than any other, for somebody very important was missing. It was Marilyn’s dad, Henry, who had died just two months earlier on September 23 from complications that arose from a bypass operation he’d had just a couple days before. When it came time to eat, I was asked to give the blessing. I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall being barely able to say it. The empty chair coupled with our empty hearts made that particular holiday by far the toughest one any of us had ever had to get through up until that time. And as you can probably imagine, Christmas wasn’t much better.
So how do we do it? How do we survive the holidays when we find ourselves in the throes of grief caused by the loss of a dear loved one. That was the topic of my GriefShare class on Monday, November 25. Though it’s not part of the regular GriefShare curriculum, it’s an option that I’ve offered every year since I’ve been doing GriefShare, knowing that all the members of my current class would be facing what Marilyn and I and her family faced back in 1995 and that we’ve also faced with the deaths of our remaining parents. And I’d like to use this month’s opening article to share with you some of the nuggets of advice that I gleaned from that class because it’s quite possible that even if you haven’t lost a loved one this year, making it through the holidays is still tough because someone who was once a very significant part of your life is no longer with you.
So the first bit of advice is this: Face it. Recognize that it’s going to hurt, that it’s going to be tough: emotionally, relationally, physically, and perhaps even spiritually. How tough might it be? One woman in the video put it this way: “I used to feel like I would like to go to sleep the day before Thanksgiving and wake up January 2nd.”
In one of the devotions that came with the GriefShare DVD it says:
Whereas for many, the holidays are a happy time when people take a break from the monotony of day-to-day life – you would love to take a break from your pain, but it’s not possible. Grief doesn’t take holidays.
So face the reality that making it through the holidays will not be easy, but while you’re facing it, don’t fake it. In other words, be honest with other people about how you’re feeling. So often in our day and age we have a tendency to put on a mask when we go out into public. Somebody asks us how we’re doing and we give a bright smile and say, “Just fine,” when in fact we’re dying on the inside. Don’t be afraid to share how you’re really feeling, but be careful that you don’t go into a long recitation of your many woes, lest you sabotage that person’s desire to offer you some help and support. Instead, you might say something like this: “Well, to be honest with you, I’m having a rough day today. My grief is still pretty fresh and the holidays make me miss my loved one so much. Thanks for caring enough to ask though. And if I could ask one more favor of you, please continue to keep me in your prayers because the only way I know I’m going to make it through this journey is with God’s help.”
Then a third bit of advice is this: Know your limitations. Recognize that this Christmas is going to be very different from any other, so don’t plan on doing everything you’ve always done. Decorating the house may have to be put on hold for a year or two. Invitations to parties or dinners might need to be declined. There may have to be a cutback in gifts given because you just don’t have the energy or the desire to go Christmas shopping and face the mobs at the malls.
Then fourthly, beware of emotional ambushes. One of the devotions in the GriefShare workbook says:
You pull out the Christmas stockings, and you hold in your hand the one with your loved one’s name on it. The emotions overwhelm you.
You go to sign the Christmas cards when suddenly it hits you – how do I sign this?
You set the table for the holiday dinner, and without even realizing it, you set a place for your loved one.
The emotions pour in like a flood. Unexpected and unstoppable…
H. Norman Wright offers sage advice for these tough moments of unexpected emotions: ‘If we could only control our crying, it would be great, but we can’t. Tears come at some of the most inopportune times. I think the way we look at tears is important. Tears are one of God’s gifts because sometimes we don’t have the words and the tears just come. You could be at a holiday gathering, in the mall or in a store, and all of a sudden you hear something or you see something and the tears just come. Best thing is, let them come. Take out a handkerchief, and don’t apologize. Never apologize for something that is a gift from God. Take charge of it and say, ‘I’m crying because I’ve experienced a devastating loss.’ That’s all you have to say.”
There was a lot of other great advice in this lesson on how to survive the holidays when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, but I want to close with the best advice. And that is to recognize that there is a connection between Christmas and suffering. Like one speaker on the DVD puts it: “If there weren’t pain, suffering, sin, destruction, discouragement, and death, there would be no need for Christmas. This holiday is about suffering. This holiday is about pain. Now what we’ve done – and it’s right to do that – is that we’ve made this a holiday of celebration because we celebrate the coming of the Messiah. But in so doing, we forget why He came. He came to end suffering. He came to end death. He came to end sin and brokenness and pain and destruction and discouragement. And so this is the sufferer’s holiday. Rather than being a holiday to be avoided, I ought to run toward Christmas because what Christmas tells me is that there is hope for people like me. Christmas guarantees that God has, will, and will continue to address what I’m going through.”
In fact, not only does Christmas remind us that God has addressed what we go through at the time of a loved one’s death, it especially reminds us that He addressed the very source of that suffering, which is sin. We live in a broken world, my friends, and sometimes even the best of Christians gets touched by that brokenness. But praise be to God and praise be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that He came to this earth nearly 2000 years ago to fix that brokenness and that by believing in Him, by receiving all that He did for us as a gift, we can enjoy a life with Him and our believing loved ones someday where death will never touch us or separate us again.
So even though the holidays can be among the toughest of all times to get through, especially if you’re walking the journey of grief, I pray that you’ve seen from this article that with God’s help it is possible and with Jesus by your side, the journey will one day have a most happy ending.
A blessed, Christ-centered Christmas to you and yours,