Not So Merry and Bright

Tis the season! The twinkle of lights meticulously placed branch by branch on the Christmas tree. Each present wrapped with precision and care. Fresh chopped oak popping and hissing in the fireplace. “3…2…1…” the confetti come down and the cheers go up as another new year begins with a kiss and a resolution that everyone knows no one will keep.

But for many, this isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. This season is painful and lonely. The holidays come with the challenge of putting on a happy face and pretending like everything is okay – when in your heart, it is anything but okay. The loss of a loved one can cut like a knife through our Norman Rockwell. Loneliness can make family gatherings feel like a charade and holiday parties not worth celebrating.

When God created man in His image, He never intended for us to know the effects of sin. God created us to live in perfect harmony, perfect peace. As we live in a fallen world, so too do we live with the effects of sin. Death, pain, grief, loneliness…these are all experiences that can overwhelm and isolate. So, what is the answer? How will we ever survive when we can’t see the merry or the bright?

Recently, our church family hosted a one-night seminar titled, Surviving the Holidays. It is an incredible resource from GriefShare Ministry. (I highly recommend it to any church or ministry committed to loving people during these difficult weeks: GriefShare Surviving the Holidays). The following are several profound truths, suggestions, and ideas from my notes that night that may help you or a someone you know survive a blue Christmas.

Pain Is Unavoidable A “successful” Christmas is not a month or a day without grief or pain. The lie many believe is true healing comes only whenever we eliminate the pain of grief. The truth is that the holiday season may never be entirely free of heartache. However, Psalm 147:3 reminds us, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Whenever you spend time with God daily during the pain of grief, He will heal those wounds and make it possible to experience joy and happiness even during the midst of heartache.

Don’t Fake It & Don’t Numb It The popularity of social media can make it seem as though everyone around you has the perfect life. During the Christmas season Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are flooded with pictures and videos of happy people and rambunctious families. The temptation is to attempt to suppress grief and fake as if everything in your life is okay too. It is actually healthier to be honest about your grief than to pretend it doesn’t exist. Be careful not to overshare or share with the wrong person – but you will feel much better processing your grief than acting like you feel 100% okay, when you don’t.

*It might be wise to take a sabbatical from social media for the month. If you don’t want to do that, consider putting yourself on a regulated schedule of social media. Overindulging, staring at a screen for hours, can multiply feelings of grief.*

It is also paramount not to numb your pain with substance, sex, or shopping. Especially amongst Christians, this seems like it’s unnecessary to say but the temptation is strong, nevertheless. Things like drugs and alcohol which were never even on your radar suddenly seem like a way to escape from the pain. Not just intense narcotics, but be mindful of prescription abuse as well. The sudden absence of a loved one can leave a void that intimacy once filled. Guard against the fleeting desires of the flesh which can crave immorality. Thought the Christmas season is a reason to surf the web for the best deals, fight the temptation to splurge for the purpose of gratification. No amount of possessions in your hands can fill the hole in your heart.

Planning the Holiday Season Grief does not fight fair. In fact, grief is best known for its guerilla tactics and frequent, unexpected ambushes. Grief wins whenever you carry a victim-mentality, defeated before you even get out of bed. Being on the offensive, rather than on your heels, can make a dramatic difference in your experience of the marathon that is the holiday season. Planning ahead is a great weapon in this fight.

A Traditions Checklist

Consider making a list of all the traditions you have that you know will be especially difficult without your loved one. Then write three columns titled, “Keep”, “Give Away”, and “Make a Memory”. If you think you are strong enough and ready to continue the tradition as-is, write a checkmark in the “keep” column. If you want to experience the tradition, but the energy and effort it takes is just too overwhelming, consider “giving it away” and recruiting help from other family members. Finally, if your heart simply cannot continue with that specific tradition or if you simply rather preserve the tradition as it was with you loved one, mark “make a memory” as a symbolic gesture to transition that tradition into a special memory.

Making new memories can also be a healthy exercise. After the death of a loved one, it can feel like you have lost so much. But it can be an honor to your loved one to start new traditions that will hopefully generate encouragement and enthusiasm.

Party Time Parties and gatherings which were once a highlight of your year can seem like dreaded torture without the loved one you now miss. After all, how can you be around so many happy people when you feel so miserable inside? Grief will cause you to surrender to isolation but the Bible tells us we were created for relationship. Beginning with creation of the first person, Adam, God knew it was not good for man to be alone. You are no different. There is encouragement and healing to be found in sincere community. Whenever you do attend parties or gatherings you will most certainly be asked questions like, “How are you doing?” “Is everything okay?” A great way to prevent a grief-burst or uncomfortable situation is to be prepared ahead of time with an answer to these kinds of questions. In addition to a prepared answer think of a question, yourself, that can easily redirect the conversation. For example,

“How are you doing since Bill passed”

“Oh, I am doing okay. It has not been easy but I am trusting the Lord to give me strength this time of year. Speaking of, can you believe the traffic this time of year? It’s crazy. Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?”

A brief answer satisfies their question and then a sincere redirect enables you to continue the conversation without staying on the subject you may not have the emotional strength to talk about. Whenever you do find yourself emotionally exhausted or the dam that is holding back the tears is about to break, allow yourself a time out. There is no shame in taking a break from the social scene to step outside and get some fresh air. Perhaps you simply need to go into another room and collect your thoughts and spend a moment in prayer to your Heavenly Father.

It is also wise to drive yourself to parties and social gatherings. If possible, take your own car. You then have a guaranteed exit should you need one. Grief is only made worse by the anxiety of being somewhere you no longer want to be and have no way of leaving.

Healing God can use Christmas as a sweet time of healing. A unique perspective to Christmas is that Christmas is the “sufferer’s holiday”. The birth of baby Jesus in a manger is a special and wonderful event – for those of us who receive salvation by His death. But the moment Jesus left His home in heaven to come to earth, He set into motion God’s plan (by God’s choice) of redemption which included the gruesome death of His only Son. The only way we can have unearned, undeserved life given in salvation is because God would give His Son to die an unearned, undeserved death. Isaiah 53:10 says, “It pleased the Father to crush the Son.” Though the life of Jesus would end in suffering and death, it is by the power of God that Jesus was raised from the dead and through salvation life is possible for all who believe. So without suffering and death, Christmas has no true meaning.

When you are ready, consider “serving through the pain.” Grief has a way of making a person inward-focused (understandably so) with their thoughts and emotions centered around themselves and how they feel. There is a world, a community, a neighborhood of people all around you who need to experience and know the love of Jesus Christ – especially at Christmas. The pain and suffering you feel at the hands of grief is not in vain; the Bible teaches in 2 Corinthians 1:4, “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” Our society encourages us to cover up our scars. In the right time and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can see those scars as stories God will use to encourage and love others.

Closing Thought To put a bow on this post (pun intended) please let me encourage you with one final thought. Moving forward and moving on are two different experiences. Whenever you move on from a loved one, you are leaving them behind. A healthy goal of healing and restoration is to move forward during the grief you experience. Whenever my mom’s best friend’s battle with cancer was over and she went on to be with the Lord in heaven, it was an extremely difficult season for my mom. It was a period of grief which was intense and long-lasting. As tears rolled down her face, my mom said, “I don’t think the hole in my heart will ever be filled.” With love and compassion, I told her, “It never has to be. There will never be someone who can be who Sue was for you, nor should you spend your time and emotions trying to find that replacement. If you will, let the love, strength, and peace of God heal the hole in your heart – making it smaller. But because of the love-legacy that Sue has given you, may who she was and continues to be never be forgotten or replaced.”

Satan will make you feel guilty and convince you that your attempts to heal are actually you moving on from your loved one. In doing so you are selfish and unloving. No one should encourage you to move one. Instead, this Christmas season, put your faith and trust in a loving, caring, compassionate God who will give you the strength to move forward, one wonderful step at a time.

Psalm 91:1-2 “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.'”