Coping with Grief at the Holidays
by Pastor Mike Goolsby
The Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays can be stressful enough just dealing with all the details and traditions that normally accompany them. This year, the pandemic and not being able to celebrate the holidays as one “normally” would bring an additional level of stress. The stress of the holidays is compounded even more, however, when you are also grieving the loss of a loved one.
My dad passed away on Christmas Eve in 2006, and I will always remember the numbness I felt at that time. In some ways, that memory tries every year to mute the joy and hope we have in the season of Advent. My dad loved the Lord, and that knowledge helps me overcome his loss each year as I turn my heart again to the first coming of Jesus and Christmas. Praise God that because of Christ and his work, we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
This article is intended to offer hope and helpful advice on the topic grief during the holidays for those who have lost loved ones. May all of us remember to pray for friends and family members who are hurting due to such loss!
If You Are Grieving…
GriefShare is a grief recovery group featuring video lectures by experts in grief and recovery subjects, support group discussions, and personal study and reflection that is designed for anyone grieving the death of a family member or friend. Here are some summary tips from GriefShare experts regarding navigating the holidays while grieving:
- Recognize that the pain of grief will surface during the holidays. Your emotions may surface at any time, but knowing this in advance will lessen the surprise. Healing takes time, and people grieve differently. For some people, the second or third year following the death of a loved one may be more difficult than the first year.
- Allow yourself to get plenty of rest. Restorative sleep is important. “For me,” shared Connie, “not getting enough rest made me vulnerable to jot just being a weary griever, but also a depressed believer.”
- Pay attention to your emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Take time to reflect, to process emotions and stresses that come with the holidays. Tell the Lord what you are feeling! And remember, spiritual renewal and focus is a must. Take time to read God’s word and meditate on it. Especially during your time of pain, the Lord is your comfort, your lover, your keeper, your safe place, and your refuge. Psalm 23:2a-3 says, “he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
- If you are grieving, don’t try to “fake it.” Be honest by acknowledging your struggle with grief, but be selective about who you share with and how you do so. Identify the people in your life with whom you feel safe, the ones who are going to nurture you and build you up.
- Don’t attempt to numb your pain in unhealthy ways such as excessive spending, working too much, taking alcohol or drugs to help relieve the pain, or entering into a romantic relationship too quickly. Instead, be intentional about filling your void with good, godly things, and the Lord himself. Meditate on this scripture, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV) You may want to pray, “God, this is so hard. I can’t do this alone. I can do this with You. Fill me with Yourself—your comfort and reassurance, Your promises, Your wisdom, Your strength.”
- Make a plan for how you will spend the holidays. A plan will help you know what to expect and relieve some of the extra stress of being without your loved one. Allow people to help you—they want to help! Don’t completely eliminate spontaneity, but a good plan could include:
- Making a list of the Christmas activities you want to do and those you do not. However, don’t jettison holiday traditions too quickly; rather, think about the traditions you want to do and those you do not, or how you might modify your traditions (e.g., putting up stockings this year, but not a tree?). Decide in advance how you can make holiday preparations meaningful, yet manageable. You may also find it helpful to begin a new tradition in honor of your loved one.
- Talk with your family and friends about your plans. Communicate with them about what you are okay doing over the holidays and what you are not.
- Make your plan, but hold your plans loosely. Reserve the right to alter your plans if you really need to. In responding to invitations to holiday gatherings (granted, this may be very different this year because of the pandemic), ask the host if you can give them a “tentative yes” or tell them “I’ll let you know.” It is okay to let them know that you appreciate the invitation, but request that they hold your attendance lightly.
- Be open to talking with your family and friends about your loved one that you are missing. Sometimes people don’t talk about them around you for fear of causing you pain. If you are willing to speak about them, you will let them know by speaking about your deceased loved one yourself.
- However, if you are asked questions and really don’t feel up to answering them, it is not impolite to say, “I appreciate your interest, but I’d rather not talk about that right now,” and then shift the focus by changing the topic.
- Especially remember to turn to God when dealing with pain. “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7, New Living Translation). Psalm 147:3 says “The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” so speak with him in prayer and tell him why your heart is broken and ask him to bind up your wounds. Many find strength for themselves by reading God’s Word (especially the Psalms), and finding ways to help or serve others when dealing with grief. Practicing purposeful thankfulness for your loved one and other blessings, and remembering the meaning of Christmas will help renew your hope.
If Someone You Know is Grieving…
- Practice the ministry of presence. You can do so with a written card or letter, a phone call, or, if possible, in person. If in person, call before going to make certain the timing is good for them. Simply let the person know that you are thinking of them and praying for them. Be a good listener, but don’t be upset if you find they are not quite ready to talk, and don’t give advice unless you are asked.
- Offer practical assistance. Make a meal and take it to them. Ask, or even better, anticipate what errands you can do for them, and do them.
- If possible, invite them to join you for the holidays, but recognize that they may want to hold that invitation lightly. They may decide at the last minute that they just are not up to coming, or they may come and ask to excuse themselves early. They may just need a quiet place in your home to go and be by themselves for awhile. Think about and prepare such a place for them. If they choose not to come, or to leave early, give them some time and then check with them again, thanking them for considering your invitation and/or for coming, even if it was only briefly.
- Don’t say, “You should be over this by now,” regardless of how long it has been. Recognize that they are dealing with loneliness, and people recover differently. Be an encourager rather than directive with advice. If you suspect they are depressed (just be aware that they may simply be tired—especially if they have been serving their loved one as a caregiver), gently encourage them to seek the help of a counselor or pastor or close friend (“Have you thought about speaking with…?). Ask if you can pray for them, and do so if they say yes.
If you are grieving, consider joining a grief support group. The above advice comes from GriefShare experts and from the experience of friends who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Eastminster will host another GriefShare group on Saturdays at 10 a.m. in the Parlor beginning January 9. Or, find a GriefShare at any one of many churches in Wichita and other cities by visiting the GriefShare website at griefshare.org.