For believers, grief is that undeniable part of the universal human experience, regularly reminding us that one day we’ll cross over to a place where there will be no more tears and no more pain. But for the time in between, it can take a huge emotional toll on us. This is especially true during the first year after a loss—the first birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. November and December can be especially cruel and unforgiving months, with their emphasis on joy and family togetherness.
Losses come in two primary categories: anticipated and unexpected. I encountered grief just this morning when I learned of the unexpected death of a friend and colleague. The news hit like a punch to the gut. Tears flowed freely as I struggled to process the reality of the loss, and as I was reminded of my own mortality. Each of us has an appointment with death, for which we must be prepared. However, it’s others’ appointments with death that leave us feeling our way around and striving to navigate life in the absence of someone we love.
As grief is concerned, losses that are anticipated are really no less burdensome than losses that are sudden and shocking. You might find yourself walking through the stages of grief, as described by Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If you or someone you know is preparing to go through that first holiday season after a tough loss, here are some good things to keep in mind:
1. Grief doesn’t take a break for the holidays.
In a culture that likes to compartmentalize, the emotions associated with loss simply refuse to get in line. They impact every aspect of life. Grief responses can be unpredictable, surprising us with unwanted appearances at inopportune times. It can be helpful to set aside focused times expressly for the purpose of being attentive to these emotions.
2. The dichotomy is disconcerting.
The glamour and glitz of Christmas decorations can stand in stark contrast to the sense of emptiness that often accompanies grief. In fact, the grieving person may find it almost impossible to go through the motions of the holidays. It’s important to allow grace to scale back expectations without feeling guilty.
3. Family traditions can take a real hit.
The pressure to keep traditions is something many people experience, especially if the one responsible for them has died. It’s okay to make changes or to enlist the help of other family members. The hole in the family provides the opportunity to talk about fond memories in a way that is healthy and therapeutic. Some families find it beneficial to begin a new tradition of some sort following a loss.
4. Favorite things can be a real trigger for a heightened grief response.
In addition to the empty place at the dinner table, there are many aspects of the holiday season for which we have unconscious attachments. It’s normal for grief to be exacerbated by holiday songs, smells, and ornaments.
5. Everything takes more effort and energy.
People are largely unprepared for the toll grief takes on their energy level. Even months after a loss, the holiday season can cause great expenditures of energy, both physically and emotionally. It’s wise to consider this fact when planning the holiday calendar. This is the season of the year when we all do well to pace ourselves in order to keep the stress level as manageable as possible.
6. The holiday season falls at a particularly bad time of year.
Combined with the long, dark nights and cold, dreary weather, a grieving soul can slip into a real depression. With an eye toward caring for yourself, it’s important to eat right and exercise—yes, even during the holidays—and get adequate rest.
7. Keep connected to safe and supportive people.
During the holidays, it can be easy to withdraw from relationships, especially when those people seem preoccupied with their own Christmas parties and activities. Those who are grieving need someone to lean on, which may be a good friend, a pastor, or a counselor. This will help grief recovery continue to advance when it would not be uncommon to get stuck.
Believe it or not, it is possible to experience joy during the holiday season, even as one who grieves.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about grief during the holidays is that the best gift you can give yourself is room to breathe. You might consider participating in a special worship service designed specifically for those who are grieving. Many funeral homes and some churches offer such opportunities during the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Believe it or not, it is possible to experience joy during the holiday season, even as one who grieves. Sure, it won’t feel the same as it used to. But things will get better. It helps to remember that the same God who gave us the greatest gift as a baby later grieved the death of his Son. You can be sure that he understands what you’re thinking and feeling, and he cares for you.
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