“It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,
It’s the Hap-happiest season of all…”
Except….when it’s not.
In the days leading up to our first Christmas without our youngest child, sixteen-year-old Mark, Harry Connick Jr.’s merry lyrics sharply contrasted with the tears and unending ache in my chest accompanying me every minute of every day. Even the night of his death, Christmas was on our minds. On our way home from the hospital that hot July night, stunned to be leaving without our child, Chuck grabbed my hand and whispered, “Christmas, what will we do about Christmas?”
Over twenty years later, I experience joy in this “most wonderful time of the year” but not because it’s the hap-happiest season of all. Because it’s not. About two weeks before Thanksgiving I begin to feel disorganized, disconnected, and emotionally edgy. Anger and impatience vie for top billing in situations that don’t normally rattle me. And every year Chuck reminds me that my root problem is grief. I miss Mark. The freight train of sorrow still surprises me with its ferocity and power.
One reason the holiday season is so difficult for grieving Americans is because marketing gurus tap deep into our core need for community and family. Thanksgiving and Christmas are ready made opportunities for stirring up our God-given hunger for peace and whole families. The most effective ads are those that imply their product will produce healthy, conflict-free relationships. Divorce, broken relationships, childlessness, loss of a loved one, financial disaster, singleness, conflict-filled marriage—none of these fit the “hap-happiest time of the year” template. The ads only serve to magnify the holes in our own broken lives.
10 Tips for Christmas Grief Relief
Anticipation of our first Christmas without Mark amplified his absence. Like so many broken people, I wanted to jump from November 1 to mid-January. Yet, somehow, I knew our first Christmas without Mark was the most important Christmas of our lives. I needed to be intentional in finding a way to lean into the pain of Christmas without our youngest child. Here are some of the lessons I Iearned:
- Don’t skip over Christmas. Christmas is for those who grieve.Ironically, when viewed through a grid of pain, the Christmas story can cultivate and nurture the seeds of hope and redemption that were planted on that first Christmas. I was strangely comforted to realize that darkness, blood, and death surrounded the birth of Jesus. Experiencing Christmas in the darkness of grief brought deeper understanding to the message of John: “The light entered the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 9).
- Give yourself permission to grieve even though everyone around you is caught up in all the trappings of Christmas. Grieve for what was. Grieve as you realize the holidays will never be the same. But grieve with hope that one day joy will slip in and push grief aside.
- Lean into the pain. If tears flow, don’t apologize; simply say something like: “Give me a minute.” Acknowledge you are grieving. Accept that no matter where you go, grief will most likely follow. But be ready to be surprised by joy as God sends you treasures in the darkness designed to help turn your heart toward Him and remind you that He calls you by name (Isaiah 45:2-3).
- Minimize the Christmas clutter and activities. It’s ok to leave most of the Christmas decorations in the attic. Grief is hard labor and requires extreme energy. You only have so much energy for each day. Be intentional about how you use it.
- Avoid overeating and using food as an emotional crutch. Sugar highs and lows contribute to raging emotions. Choose to eat healthy foods, and stay hydrated, especially if you are crying a lot.
- Cut your expectations of others. Remember you are emotionally raw and will be tempted to question the motives of others. Be ready to forgive and to be forgiven. Most of your friends have never experienced the devastation of your loss. They, too, are trying to find their way in this foreign land of grief.
- Get plenty of rest but schedule times to move. If you’re lying down, sit up. If you’re sitting up, stand up. If you’re standing, walk. If you’re walking, run. In other words, force yourself to get moving. Ask a friend to meet you at the park and walk and talk or cry. But get moving.
- Cut back on activities but do not isolate yourself. If large groups are difficult, plan time with a few trusted friends. Be aware of what might trigger painful memories. Give yourself permission to skip concerts and other special events you know will be too painful, but do not withdraw. God created community for such a time as this. Receive the gift of relationships and allow them to be part of your healing.
- Help someone else. Yes, you are broken and feel helpless and hopeless, and it will be hard to offer help and hope to another. But God’s grace enables us and in some supernatural way, uses service to others to strengthen our own hearts.
- Spend time with Jesus. This one should be listed first but see it as the foundation of all the other tips. Your brokenness makes you vulnerable to His voice and love. He is “near to the broken-hearted.” There are “treasures in the darkness, riches stored in secret places” that He has for you—treasures we cannot experience in the light. Be on the lookout for those treasures designed to turn your heart toward Him.
For so many years after the death of our son, tears accompanied every effort I made to “save Christmas” for our family. I soon accepted I could not recreate the joyful celebration of past years. In time, God created new traditions and memories that are now our “new normal.”
We can try to run from grief, but somehow it always finds us. However, there comes a day when joy slips in and finds ways to overshadow the ghost of grief. Make way for that joy.
About the Author:
Sharon W. Betters enjoys writing Daily Treasure, a free online devotional and is author of several books, including Treasures of Encouragement and Treasures in Darkness. She is Director of Resource Development and co-founder of MARKINC.org, a non profit organization that offers help and hope to hurting people. When Sharon isn’t writing she is enjoying golf with her husband and loud, chaotic family gatherings with their children and fourteen grandchildren.