Three years ago I was celebrating Thanksgiving with my family when my dad died quickly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. Five months later, still in intense grief from losing my dad, I had my sixth miscarriage around 12 weeks of pregnancy – a pregnancy for which the due date was late November. Those two holiday seasons were some of the hardest and darkest times in my life. Most days I was simply surviving, going through the motions and praying that I would be present enough to keep my kids alive until the next day. Some days the numbness of survival faded and all I felt was the gaping hole and searing pain of loss. Deep, heartbreaking, life altering loss.
Grief is hard any time of year, but Thanksgiving and Christmas hold such an expectation of merriment and celebration, the feelings that accompany grief are intensified this time of year. The gaping chasm between life with the person or situation that is being mourned seems ever so wide as those around us seem to effortlessly feel the joy and togetherness of this season. It’s almost like the “The Christmas Carol” where Scrooge is viewing scenes of his life and is filled with emotion, but he can’t participate or do anything to stop what is happening. It’s surreal to be a part of family traditions or celebrations where you want to feel differently, and knowing that those around you DO feel differently, but not being able to make that happen. Then many people wrestle with guilt and sadness about not being able to be the wife/mom/daughter they feel they should be during this time because of the expectations the holidays hold, and it becomes another grief on top of grief.
In light of these things, I thought I would share some simple things that helped me weather those first few Christmases, and some things my friends and family did that helped me to heal and find joy again. If you are in a season of grief, the loss of a loved one, of a situation, of an expectation that you held dear here are some things that may help you:
- Have realistic expectations. This may not be the year you cook five family dinners and host two parties and have everything wrapped by December 1st. Think about what would make the holidays meaningful and restorative for you and your family and communicate this to them. This may mean change for traditions or expectations that others have for you, but remember this doesn’t have to be the way things always are – it’s about giving yourself the freedom to allow celebration and grief to coexist in this season.
- Allow your support system to BE a support system. The friends and family in my life during the season above carried me through my darkest days. They were the literal hands and feet of Jesus as there were days where God felt so far off, but a friend loved me well by bringing dinner or listening to my thoughts. I felt the love and comfort of God in their simple acts of friendship and kindness, and it was hands down one of main things that allowed my heart to heal. So let people help you cook or shop or listen to how you miss your loved one over coffee – this is not an inconvenience, but you are allowing them to love you and be there for you when you need them most.
- Say NO to things that are too hard, unless you need to do them, and then say YES. Make sense? For example, the song Emmanuel was the last song I sang with my dad, standing next to him in church the night before he died. The first time I heard after his death I couldn’t breathe. It was too real and painful and singing about the closeness of my Savior while remembering that my dad was no longer close. I made Nate, who was in charge of worship at our church, give me the song set for each sunday so I would know if I needed to make an early exit. Now, years later, that song is so comforting to me. I am instantly transported back to that night, but instead of gut wrenching pain and sobbing, there is a sweetness to it. Time has healed the jagged edges of my wounds and I can enter into those sacred memories with joy and peace. For some, saying no to a certain tradition or event may make it harder or worse for their grief – you may find the need to do the thing you always did because it helps you heal. That’s one of the tricky things about navigating loss, you don’t know what you need or what will help you until you are in the moment.
- Pray and remember God’s promises. I spent so many days reading in the Psalms and begging for God to heal my broken heart. Every morning I would sit at my kitchen table and let Truth wash fresh over me. Most of my prayers were simple and honest, asking God for help to make it through another day. Sometimes there is the pressure to seem happy because of your faith, instead of having the space to express your true feelings. I assure you, this is not God’s expectation. God grieves and weeps with us, and our crying out of “this isn’t the ways things are supposed to be” is something that actually honors Him. Pain and loss and death are NOT the way things are supposed to be, and are all the more the reason we need the hope in and redemption of Jesus.
- Practice good self care. We are terrible about this as a society, and many people in seasons of grief most people aren’t thinking clearly enough to be able to articulate what they need or what would help them. They know they aren’t ok, but the don’t know what will help them be ok. So keep it simple: eat some veggies, talk a walk, feel the sun on your face each day, talk to a friend, remember the person you lost, cry, sleep and allow others to hug or hold you so you experience the benefits of physical touch. Take deep breaths and know that this is a season, not how you will feel forever.
- If you are walking with someone through a season of grief help them do these things. The most helpful thing my people did in my season of grief was to ask. Ask how I was doing, ask what I was missing about my dad, ask if I was thinking about my due date, just ASK. It feels awkward to pose those hard questions at first, but it is so refreshing to be free to share what you are experiencing and remembering about the person you lost. We often ask how we can help someone, which is a valid question, but (in my experience) most people can’t come up with a specific way you can help them or their family. So offer – offer dinner, rides for their kids to practice, to take them to coffee, to help clean their house or shop for presents. Whatever it is that YOU are good at and can be a blessing to others, use that to walk through this season with them. Finally, believe for them what they can’t believe for themselves. Believe that they will find joy again, that they will laugh and love and that there is wholeness on the other side of loss. They may not feel these things for a long time, but you as a friend can champion the Truth for them when it seems too far off for their heart to hope.
This year, the magic of Christmas is back for me. The lights are twinkly and my heart feels merry and full. My life is made richer by the people I have loved and lost and their influence on me is not negated because I now have joy. Instead those seasons of loss have made me grateful for the time I had with them. Time and the hope of Jesus have been a balm to my heart and I am able to say with confidence that if you are grieving now, you will heal. Your heart too will feel light again and you will find joy – and I’ll believe that for you until you can believe it for yourself.