This story has been posted on my blog in other years but it is such a timely subject that I wanted to share it again. It originally was published in The Lookout Magazine. Since then, we have lost my father-in-law. Losing a loved one is never easy, but enduring it at the holidays is harder. I hope this helps and blesses everyone who reads it. Please let me know your thoughts. Take care.
My dad died in August 25, 2005. His death was the result of an unsuccessful surgery for an enlarged aortic aneurysm (he had to have the surgery to remove it or it could have burst, killing him at any time). The next couple of months were a blur. I worked in a college library and had to immediately return to work for the new school year. My older children were in college and my youngest in high school so their lives were full too with school duties. My husband’s work in a factory also kept him busy.
Having little time to grieve became a disadvantage as the Christmas holidays approached. My own family as well as those of my two sisters, wondered how to handle our usual holiday family traditions minus Dad’s presence. Who would distribute our extended family’s gifts to each other on Christmas Eve? Dad always did that. Who would buy the piece of jewelry Dad always gave to Mom? Who would sit in his chair at the head of the table during meals? Dad had loved each of us unconditionally and we missed him. To replace him without thought during those special occasions seemed dishonorable.
The Bible says, “There is ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Proverbs 3:4). Unfortunately, the time to mourn can seem to interfere with the message of Christmas, which is joy. This emotion can be difficult to manifest for people dealing with loss of a loved one. One thing that can help is to be prepared to deal with grief at Christmas.
1. Acknowledge your feelings of loss.
The first year after Dad died I tried ignoring my grief as Christmas approached. It didn’t work. Holiday music grated on my nerves as it was far from ‘the hap-hap-happiest season of all’. To croon, “There’s nowhere like home for the holidays” was a lie when every visit to my parents’ home reminded me of Dad and how he would not be here to celebrate with us.
For a person in grief Christmas is far from ‘the hap-hap-happiest season of all’.
Attending a grief seminar that focused on ways to handle grief during the holidays helped. The instructors provided ideas for achieving a sense of normalcy (would anything ever be normal again?). Their suggestions alleviated my anxiety about greeting the season of Christ’s birth with joy when my heart was heavy.
One suggestion that meant much to me was to honor Dad’s absence by establishing a memorial in his honor. Our family chose to do this by hanging an ornament with his photo (a smiling head shot) on the front of our Christmas tree. Seeing it among the twinkling lights reminded me each time I drew near of Dad’s happy outlook on life.
The methods of handling grief at holidays can vary by individuals. Every year since Dad’s death, my sister and her daughter have honored him by taking holiday gifts to the local animal shelter in memory of his hobby of raising dogs.
After my mother-in-law died of cancer, another daughter-in-law burned a candle during daytime hours for weeks leading up to Christmas in her honor.
When thinking of ways to honor a loved one, it can be soothing to bless others simultaneously. My friend and author Cathy Shouse purchases a poinsettia each year to decorate her church in memory of her mother-in-law who died several years ago. “My mother-in-law’s name is printed in the church bulletin along with the names of several other people who have passed away and are placed there by members of the church,” said Cathy. “After Christmas, we take the flowers home and continue honoring our loved ones by caring for the plants.”
2. Accept comfort and support from friends. Grief can feel like a solitary process, but it can help to accept comfort from family and friends. A few weeks after Dad’s death, a friend sent me a card. “I know Christmas will be difficult for you this year,” Tonya wrote. “I’m praying God will bless you this holiday season.” Her contact reminded me I wasn’t alone. Jonathan and David had this kind of friendship when Jonathan said to his friend, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.” (1 Samuel 20:42 NIV). These friends were there for each other through everything life could produce. That proved especially true when David later cared for Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, after Jonathan’s death (2 Samuel 4:4). The Christmas season can take a strenuous toll on individuals suffering from loss of a loved one. Friends offering a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear can lessen the impact.
3. Grief can lead to spiritual growth.
Jesus spoke about the inevitability of grief in our lives when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matt 5:4 NIV). My friend Susan discovered this comfort the Christmas following her father’s suicide. “I had just graduated from college,” she said. “My life was supposed to be filled with excitement over new possibilities. Instead, it came to a screeching halt. I was shocked and devastated.” That tableau continued throughout the fall. Then, in December while singing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, Susan had a revelation. “The words from the song ‘Born that man no more may die’ took on new meaning,” she said. “I realized for the first time in my life what Christmas was about. It wasn't a matter of doing something or focusing on what I didn't have but focusing instead on what God gave us on Christmas Day. The weight of grief lifted from my heart.” 4. Care for yourself when in the throes of grief.
I was shocked at how pain from Dad’s death affected more than just my emotions. Getting out of bed, choosing clothes to wear and food to eat became difficult as Christmas approached. Concentrating on doing things I enjoyed, such as volunteering to help with a charity, attending a candle light service, calling an old friend to wish her Merry Christmas, taking a child shopping for his parent’s gift, helped assuage my sluggish movements. By thinking less of my loss and focus more on others at Christmas, I obeyed the words of Paul in Philippians, “…not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (2:4 NIV)
As the days got closer to the Season of Joy that first year after Dad’s death, I cried more often and apologized less. It was hard to smile at gift-opening time for many of us in our extended family, but we knew Dad would not want us to be sad at this family event. He would want us to feel happy. By the time the next Christmas occurred, we could talk about Dad without entering a crying jag. Such actions did not mean we missed him any less. We just could handle our loss better by then. 5. Ways to help others through the grieving process.
Do you hurt for someone who is grieving and want to help them through the season of Christ’s birth? The above suggestions can be adapted to fit their needs (i.e. give money to a charity in celebration of the loved one’s life; make a memory tree for the deceased; purchase a poinsettia to decorate a church and place the name of the friend who has passed away on it).
Churches can help people dealing with grief at Christmas by providing support. One example is a Living and Giving Tree. It can be a full-sized tree (artificial is recommended) placed in a central location, such as the sanctuary, at Christmas time. Envelopes filled with names of people from the church who have suffered loss during the past year are hung on the tree. Other church members choose a name and offer an appropriate gift to the bereaved, thus offering friendship during a difficult time– a meal, gift, an invitation to go caroling.
Two gifts you can give a person deep in the pit of grief that will mean more than anything — undivided attention and unconditional acceptance of their journey.
Grief can occur at any point in our lives. It seems especially tough to have it interfere with Christmas, the season created to bring joy to every person through Christ’s birth. But if we accept the support of friends, share with others, and acknowledge our feelings of loss, we can move toward the road of healing and true understanding of Jesus’ birth.
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