What can you do when the holidays hurt?
For some of us, life will be tough this Christmas season. Culturally, Christmas comes with expectations that everything and everyone is happy. In contrast, however, Christmas has a way of sharpening our awareness that all is not well in our lives.
The joy of the season seems eclipsed by our community-wide losses. Our inability to pay bills—never mind buying gifts, fear about prospects for employment or relationships, accepting that a friend is dying in ICU, or sorrow over a loved one’s empty chair, can threaten to rob us of joy. As we continue in quasi-isolation, we wonder what happened to “Joy to the World” and “it’s a Holly, Jolly Christmas.” I ask myself, “how do I reconcile a season of celebration with the palpable reality of loss”?
Even five years after the deaths of our sons, Jordan and Evan, the time passed has not made the Christmas season any easier to get through. Adjustments were necessary. I fortify myself for the season ahead by understanding my feelings, developing coping strategies and focusing on the hope within my realities.
The feelings associated with loss and change are both unfamiliar and overwhelming. Still, those feelings are normal. Even years after their deaths, my emotional threshold remain low during special holidays. When I am easily overwhelmed, I must pace myself. When I feel tentative and uncertain, I need to lower my expectations and avoid over-committing. When I am swinging on the emotional pendulum, I remind myself that this season will be a blend of both heartache and joy.
It is common to have internal struggles with joy or laughter: I feel guilty as I enjoy lighthearted fun. Disappointment threatens to rob me of simple pleasures; it pushes me—again and again—to wrestle with the idea that faith in God doesn’t insulate me from pain.
Everyday events sometimes ambush me with fresh waves of grief: a song, a fragrance in the air, specific words or gestures. Some triggers I anticipate (pulling out ornaments or old family photos), but some triggers will catch me off-guard (running into a friend whose child has arrived home from university for Christmas break). Anticipating and recognizing these triggers and their effects is an important way to develop healthy coping strategies.
It is easy to neglect myself when sadness invades, but I’ve come to realize that self-care is necessary. I’m mindful that I should eat healthily, develop a balanced sleep pattern, and exercise. I avoid attempts to numb my pain by drinking, self-medicating, or other destructive behaviours like eating my pain away. It takes courage to permit myself to feel my hurts rather than run from them. I turn to an understanding person I know will listen to me without judgement.
When asked, I accept invitations tentatively. I’ve learned to be honest with the host, sharing with them that I have good and bad days. I am ready to back out of commitments if I am feeling emotionally fragile. Pre-planning a tactful exit strategy is wise so that I can use it when my capacity for socializing has ended.
I try to think of ways to honour the past and create new traditions. I think of ways to acknowledge the loved ones now lost to me: hanging a sentimental item in a prominent place, preparing their favourite food, or setting a place for them at the table. It is especially meaningful to talk about them freely; I invite others not to “walk on eggshells” around me.
I must embrace the practical limitations of my circumstances, purposing in my heart that they will not rob me of celebrating with those closest to me. My current mission is to accept and adjust to the facts. There is no perfect way to navigate this mission, it can feel like a roller coaster, so I need to extend grace to myself and others.
Hope in our reality
When it feels like the world is caving in, I remind myself that I won’t always feel this way. Things change. Though it is emotionally hard to work through grief, I recognize that I am moving away from a “relationship of presence” to a “relationship of memory.” This is one of many helpful insights of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, whose website is a great resource.
The Christmas season offers me yet another tangible opportunity to trust God with my heart pain. The message of the Messiah’s birth invites God into our personal worlds of darkness. How desperately I need that light to cut through my darkness! Isaiah 9:2 (NIV) says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
God sure did show up on that first Christmas night when the bright star pierced the sky, guiding the wise men to the place where Jesus lay. A celestial spotlight announced, “Here I am! God with skin on”.
Fear is a predominant emotion for me at Christmas: I am not who I once was, and I struggle to get through Christmas. I take comfort in the angel’s message to Mary, Joseph, and to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.” God acknowledged their fear, and he sent a direct message to calm their hearts. Why should I fear? God is with us.
The awareness that I hold—that all is not right in my life—points me to that babe in a manger. Emmanuel, God is with us. Oh, how I need Him! God’s incredible gift to me is eternal life; I have repented and believe in His name. Christ is the gift I hold dear, especially as I reckon with the realities of death and loss.
I cling to God’s faithfulness. My pain is not the end of me! By trusting God with my heartache, I know that there are better days ahead. My days won’t always be this dark.
Because of Christmas, my pain has a meaningful purpose. My capacity to cope increases because I have hope in the bigger picture. I am living life in partnership with him—I am not alone. God has rescued me from isolation. God is with me forever. With God, I have a whole and rewarding life. A life in which He loves, accepts, and forgives me.
The pain of loss and change has a way of turning us inward. One outward way to care for yourself is to serve others. Open yourself up by connecting with someone else who is hurting or alone. Reach out to them, shovel snow for a neighbour, bake a cake, write a card, send a text, or offer to pick up groceries for someone. Take the initiative to phone a friend. You will discover that you become the unintended beneficiary of your acts of kindness.
Did you know that you can be a “Hope Hero” to a friend who is struggling with loss? No cape required! Don’t underestimate the value you bring with simple acts of kindness. My friend Shirley Thiessen, author of The Little Back Funeral Dress, presents meaningful ideas on being a “Hope Hero” to a grieving friend. You will discover three simple suggestions in her short online video.
God bless you this advent season. As you prepare your heart: feel all your feelings, build coping strategies, and reclaim the incredible hope of Christ.