Coping with Grief During the Holidays
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” That’s what the peppy Christmas songs tell us, but if you’ve recently suffered a loss – such as the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, or sudden unemployment – these words may ring very hollow. In fact, almost everything about the holiday season tends to ignore the complex emotions that many people experience at this time of year.
Advertisements show happy, intact families enjoying the holidays in their perfect homes, and we get the message that we should all feel that cheerful. Expressing sadness or emptiness at this time of year is discouraged, because that would really put a damper on everyone else’s “holiday spirit.” But what if you’ve lost your job and you can’t afford to buy gifts for your children this year? What if someone you love deeply has died, and Christmas will never be the same again?
As Christians, we affirm the joy and hope that are at the heart of Christmas. Yet even Jesus’ birth was not unmarked by suffering and loss. Mary, after all, became pregnant before she was married, which likely caused both her and Joseph to endure the community’s scorn. And Jesus himself, though he was God, became flesh and entered into a world of brokenness, making him subject to the full range of human emotions – including not only joy and peace, but also grief and utter abandonment on the cross.
For most people, the holiday season is a time for celebration. But for some, it is a very painful time; failing to recognize this can cause others to feel even more isolated in their grief. Here are a few suggestions for helping to ease the pain of loss (your own or someone else’s) this holiday season:
If you are grieving:
- – Decide which holiday traditions you feel like participating in, and opt out of the rest. For instance, you may feel OK about attending a small Christmas gathering with loved ones, but not the holiday party at the office. Choose activities because you think you would enjoy them, not because others pressure you.
- – Limit your intake of upsetting news in the media. When you are grieving, exposing yourself to too much of this kind of information can feel overwhelming.
- – Seek support wherever you can find it. If your family or friends don’t understand what you’re going through, look for support groups in your community. These groups may help connect you with others who understand your situation because they’re experiencing something similar.
If you want to care for others who are grieving:
- – If someone doesn’t feel like attending a holiday event, respect that person’s choice. A simple response like “I understand,” or “I’ll be thinking of you,” feels more supportive than cajoling or laying on a guilt trip.
- – Be especially sensitive toward those who have suffered the death of a loved one within the past year. This will be the first holiday without the deceased person, and will probably feel especially difficult. A simple, handwritten note can communicate your caring in a profound way.
- – Consider hosting a “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” service at your church. These services, held on or near the winter solstice, can be a powerful way to acknowledge the difficulty many people experience at this time of year, and to make space for individuals to bring their losses before God and the faith community.
Of course, we don’t have the power to heal the pain of loss on our own; that is God’s role. But, this holiday season, being gentle with our own and others’ grief may convey hope and peace in ways no cheery Christmas tune ever could.
The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.