Guest post by Rev. Dr. Jacky Gatliff, Associate Pastor, Care Ministries
For those who are grieving and those who love them:
The holiday season is filled with so many activities and expectations and is arriving during a most unusual time. This year, we are all living in the shadowlands—nothing feels as it should as the shadow of the unknown hovers around each of us.
And even so, some of us are living in even deeper shadows that feel even darker and extend even wider that come with experiencing grief from the death of someone we have loved. This year, each of us is either grieving or knows well someone who is.
While people are decorating for the holidays earlier than usual hoping to push back the shadows, what options do those whose grief is fresh have other than to go into hiding and reappear on January 2? What choices can we make?
Is there hope to be found in the holidays for those who grieve?
The hundreds of grievers I have had the privilege of knowing as a grief counselor and educator and now as a pastor have taught me several important things that are helpful for those who are grieving to know and do during these days:
1) Talk about your grief.
Every griever has three needs:
to find the words for their grief
to say the words out loud
to know the words have been heard.
This may seem obvious, but you probably have already found it difficult to find friends or family who hesitate to talk with you about your grief. Why the silence? Usually it’s because they are afraid you will become sad and teary. Just because you may not be talking about your grief with every word doesn’t mean your heart isn’t feeling it in almost every moment. It is harder and the shadows darken when you feel you canNOT talk about your grief. So TALK!
Speak about what you are missing this year. Remember the memories (both the sweet and the not so sweet) of seasons past. You will be honoring your loved one and caring for your heavy heart when you do. As you speak your grief, you will be giving permission to others to speak of their own.
2) Be creative in bringing their name into these days.
Consider beginning Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering—no matter whose present this year—with a special moment to remind each of you of the person who is not there. It can be a simple prayer, a toast, a candle-lighting or just a few quiet moments. Rather than working feverishly to avoid saying the name, it’s much better to take the opposite approach and to deliberately find a time to specifically mention the name. Remember to say their name and not just use a pronoun. Deliberately say, “David ate the Christmas cookies faster then I could make them” or “Oh, how Mary loved watching Thanksgiving football.”
I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:5)
3) Do what you want to do for you—not what others expect of you.
It is going to take some energy and thought for you to define your boundaries. During this season in the best of times, boundaries fall down. They do so even more when we grieve. Grief isn’t just about our emotions but engages all of who we are mentally, physically, socially and spiritually. Do you find yourself easily distracted by things you can’t even remember? It’s because you’re grieving. Are you wondering why you are so tired? It’s because you’re grieving. Finding it hard to initiate connecting with friends and family? You’re grieving. Do you have conflicted thoughts and feelings about God and what you believe about Him? It’s because you’re grieving.
You are the one who will determine what is the next thing you need to do, what is best for you to do or what to do at all. Each of us will grieve in our own way and on our own schedule. Be guided by the reality that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays after a loved one has died.
Does sending Christmas cards sound overwhelming? Then don’t do it. Or maybe sending the cards this year will provide tender moments for you as you write the names of family and friends on the envelopes. It’s your choice.
Is it too much to think about attending a Christmas Eve service this year, which is already guaranteed to be different than those past? If so, know that there will be some wonderful and creative opportunities to attend a Christ Church service as you watch online. It’s your choice. Take the pressure off of making these holidays just like the ones from years past.
Somehow, kind Jesus, lead me through the season.
4) Prepare Him room.
Christmas always cost something, but it can cost more not to celebrate. There is no denying that a death alters our traditions and celebrations. But the Truth that the season returns us to each year is that God sent His Son Jesus at just the right time to do what was necessary for us to be sons and daughters of God—because that is who we are. This may be just the right time for you to know that reality in a new and more tangible way.
How can you prepare Him room?
Try using a new Advent devotional. (You may want to pick up Not Yet Christmas: It’s Time for Advent – A Daily Reader by J. D. Walt or Come Let Us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp). If you look for one on your own, the best ones will offer a scripture and a short reading for each day of Advent. There are many that you will find good to have in this season. You may find that you will hear the old story in a new way because of your experience of grief, and that could be a really good thing.
The familiar carols can become a prayer for those moments when we simply can’t find the words to offer. The tunes and the words bring a flood of memories, even tears. But they can also enliven us and become a song of hope. This may not be the year to sing aloud, but by listening attentively, we can make the music in our hearts that we can’t get to cross our lips. “Once in Royal David’s City” instantly takes me back to being an elementary age child at River Road United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia. As in many Christmas Eve services, this carol opened the worship and was much loved by my mother. Because she taught me to eagerly anticipate hearing it, sweet and tender memories of her, joined by teary eyes, surface in those moments.
Lord, this season reminds me that whenever I am weak, You are strong.
Is it all right if I grieve around You? I feel like I have to act strong in certain places and with certain people.
But You know that I need a place just to be a griever, full of questions, full of tears at times, overwhelmed by absence.
Thank you for being close to my broken heart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
-from A Decembered Grief
5) Receive Him now.
Early in Advent, you will hear the familiar words:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows – light! Sunburst of light! (Isaiah 9:2, MSG)
This verse tells each of us where our story begins as it shows us not only about what is to come but also who we are. The light, Jesus, did not come to those who were clean and hopeful. Rather, He came to those who are in deep darkness. He comes to make His mercies known to those who are grieving.
Jesus came to carry us when we can’t face the thought of moving through the days that lead up to Thanksgiving and Christmas day. God is our ever-steady, ever-present strengthening Father who holds our hands, lifting us up when our legs buckle beneath us and our hearts feel fragile and worn.
Even in this season, filled with grief, if you permit Him, He will come to you, a griever, and will ‘make His blessings flow’ through moments, through songs, through scents, through people, through memories and through hope that is an anchor for our soul, firm and secure.
When love came down, it brought gifts of hope and gladness with it. Unwrap the gifts. He is here for you and will never forsake you. Receive Him now.
God, I’m not asking for miracles throughout this season.
I’m asking to recognize Your movements in my life.
I’m asking to catch Your whispers.
I’m asking to sense Your presence in what I think are my darkest moments, when I think I can’t go on.
God, I’m asking for moments when I can see Your grace as clearly as footprints in freshly fallen snow or wet sand along a beach.
-Howard Ivan Smith, A Decembered Grief