JOY to the world. Really? When a loved one has died and you are facing your first Christmas without them (or even second), it is easy to wonder if there will be any joy in your home this year. It is normal to wonder, “What’s so happy about the holidays this year?”
In his book, Don’t Take My Grief Away from Me, Doug Manning compares the pain of grief to a cut finger:
"It is numb before it bleeds
It bleeds before it hurts
It hurts until it begins to heal
It forms a scab and itches until finally the scab falls off and a small scar is left where once there was a wound."
Manning continues, saying “Grief is the deepest wound you have ever had. Like a cut finger, it goes through stages and leaves a scar.”
Wherever you are in your grief journey right now, the holiday season has a way of affecting the wound of grief. You may experience new pain and discomfort. You may find that the wound of grief is at risk for infection and needs extra attention and care. The tender scab may get ripped off prematurely. If your wound is scarred now, you may find that scar “rubbed the wrong way” by the season, left feeling irritated and tender.
It may be tempting to think that skipping Christmas all together is the best way to avoid this pain and discomfort. Of course, that’s not really an option and it would not be sound advice in any case.
Coping with the holidays after loss is not about deciding how to eliminate pain from our lives, but rather learning to live with grief instead of being consumed by it. Folks who have walked this journey before – and my own personal experiences- have taught me some ways to cope with the challenges of the holiday season following loss.
Ø Anticipation is often worse than reality. Be realistic. This holiday season will be different from any other because your loved one is no longer with you. There will be pain but don’t try to block the bad moments. Be ready for them. Lay in a supply of tissues. Let those moments come and be what they are. Express the pain. Don’t hold it in. Cry. Do what you have to do. Then let it go. Remember that grief is the price we pay for love. Grief is an expression of our love and our longing.
Ø Plan ahead. People who are grieving often have trouble concentrating and making decisions. Don’t wait til the last minute to try to decide what you need and want to do. Make lists of those things. What I need to do. What I want to do. Then prioritize everything. Decide early what is really important. You don’t have to do it all. It is okay, even necessary, to redefine your expectations of yourself and others.
Ø Be kind and gentle, with yourself. Be patient with yourself and with others. When you have figured out what you need to do, stop and consider whether you can do it. Your physical, emotional and spiritual energy is not at optimum levels when you are bereaved. Balance what you think you should do against what you are able to do and then make compromises.
Ø Communicate! People do care, but they cannot read your mind. Be intentional about keeping the lines of communication open between yourself, your family and your friends. If you can, tell others what you need. Tell them what you need, what you can do and what you cannot do.
Ø Tradition can be defined in a very fluid way this year. Some people find comfort in the traditions of the past and will want to maintain those traditions as much as possible. Others will need to change traditions this year in order to take care of themselves and acknowledge how very different this Christmas is because of the death of their loved one. There is no right or wrong here. Different people simply have different needs. Don’t necessarily toss out all traditions, but communicate with one another and do what feels best for you and your family. Know that any changes you make this year do not necessarily have to be carried over to another year. (Example: hotel, pizza etc.)
Ø Take care of yourself physically. Eat right and exercise. Get your flu shot. The stress of grief has a tremendous impact on your physical well-being. Grief, especially grief that is suppressed, will suppress the immune system and makes us more vulnerable to illness. Avoid excesses of alcohol and caffeine. Taking a mult-vitamin may be a good idea, but always consult with your doctor before taking any new medications or supplements…and make sure your doctor knows you have suffered a loss.
Ø Remember the children in your family. Teenagers should be included in family discussions and decisions. Even the youngest children can be included in remembrance rituals, such as lighting a candle each evening in memory of your loved one or hanging a special ornament on the tree. Let children help with the baking of grandma’s special pecan pie or let an older child take over the tradition of Grandpa’s reading of the Christmas story on Christmas eve. Right now the children in your life are watching and learning how to cope with stress and loss and change. You are their role model and teacher. This is an awesome responsibility. Please ask for help if you need it.
Ø Hold on to your purse, wallet and credit cards. You can’t spend your grief away, though you may be tempted to try. Similarly, expensive toys and gadgets will not do as much for the children in your family as an honest sharing of grief and of the precious memories of their loved one. When you do choose to shop, shop on your “good” days. Avoid crowds and additional stress by shopping on-line or asking others to help you with these chores.
Ø Honor you loved one’s memory by reaching out to others. Involve the entire family in taking gifts to a nursing home, making a donation in your loved one’s name to a charity, such as hospice or another mission. Buy mittens for a mitten tree or visit the elderly. Not only do you honor your loved one’s memory, but you get a fresh perspective on your own situation when you reach out to help others in need. You also foster an attitude of gratitude for the blessings you still have in your life.
Finally, keep the faith. Christmas is first, last and always the celebration of God’s great love for us born in a manger in Bethlehem. God’s love for you is truth. It is a fact. In the harsh reality of the pain of your grief you may not FEEL that love right now. You know what? That’s okay. It’s okay because the TRUTH of God’s LOVE for us has never depended upon our ability to FEEL it at any given moment in time. Let me say that again: The TRUTH of God’s LOVE for us has never depended upon our ability to FEEL it at any given moment in time.
We go through our days. One moment we are up. The next we are down. Today we are healthy. Tomorrow we may have the flu or upper respiratory crud that has been going around. A baby is born. A loved one dies. Our emotions are all over the place, up down and all around , changing with the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. Happiness is here today, gone tomorrow.
But God’s love never changes. God’s love never fails. God’s love for you is TRUTH. It is a FACT that God loves you, even if you can’t FEEL it tonight. Even if you don’t FEEL it on Christmas day.
Do not despair. Whatever else you may be feeling- it will will pass. That is the nature of emotion. Just say a brief prayer – something like “God, I can’t feel your love right now. I’m too sad/angry/scared…But I am choosing to believe that you are here and you love me even now. Thank you.”
The Lord says Turn toward me and I will turn toward you. Take one step toward home and your Heavenly Father throws his arms wide open ready to receive you. All of this, because of the life, death and resurrection of the baby boy born in Bethlehem. God’s love in flesh.
This is why we sing… or perhaps we can only listen or hum along. But the music of Christmas will not be stilled. We are going to hear it in the grocery store. We will hear it on the radio. And we will even hear it within our own hearts and lives And it will be okay. For every song of Christmas is a love song from God, for you. Keep the faith.