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What if Christmas Cheer feels like Christmas Drear?

Chances are that you know someone who will be grieving their
way through the holidays. Someone is missing, and missing out, and all that’s
left are memories. This is excellent, from Sarah Nannen: “Holiday host etiquette: If you’re inviting someone to your
home and they’re grieving, be sure you’re inviting their grief to attend, too.
It will be there anyway.”

It’s so natural to be tongue-tied around grievers. We want
to offer comfort, somehow, but words fail us, or worse, we say all the wrong
ones. Our intentions are always good, but sometimes instead of offering
comfort, we simply feel uncomfortable, afraid or nervous.

Maybe we have some deep grief of our own, and maybe we haven’t
faced it. If so, another’s outward expression of grief may be hard to take.
It’s worth examining whether we tend to hold hurting people at bay, or come in
close – if indeed we do hold them at bay, why? Are we afraid,
uncomfortable, nervous? Is it hitting too close to home?

There are lots of ways to hold grievers at arms’ length. Sadly,
some of those look and even sound very “spiritual” but can actually be quite
damaging. A word of advice: DON’T OFFER ADVICE. When I stop and think about
that, I realize that I have absolutely no standing to advise anyone about their

I asked a few friends two questions:

1)  What do you wish people knew?

2)  What are you feeling leading into the holidays?

Those responses are woven throughout the rest of this post, in
their own words.

One friend, whose young adult daughter passed away suddenly
in April, said this:

[I wish people knew] that just
because seven months have gone by, please keep checking up on me. It’s harder
when the world just goes on and the cards have stopped coming, and offers of help
are not there anymore, like they were. Our daughter’s birthday and immediate
family members’ birthdays and holidays (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day,
Thanksgiving, Christmas) without our daughter are so difficult, especially the
first year.

Another friend talked about losing her husband, many years ago now, and said, “It has been a long time. He has been gone longer than I
knew him. I do ok now. But he lives in my heart every single day.”

And this, from one who recently lost her husband of 58

I think sometimes we do not realize
how important it is to stay in touch with a widow. They need a good support
system. A card, a phone call, a listening ear, or lunch can mean so much. I
have been so blessed with the support system of my family and friends. My
children have been here every week to make sure I have food and any other thing
I need. Their surrounding love has helped me get through the “firsts” – the
first birthday after, the first Thanksgiving after.  I have those who are walking with me, but
what about those widows who are not that fortunate? My heart goes out to them.

They want to hear your stories about their loved one. They
want you to be brave enough to SAY THEIR NAME. Don’t shy away – your fears of
“opening wounds” with stories or names are probably unfounded. Remember that
there will never be any new stories to tell or memories to make.

One friend said, “I love when our daughter’s name is
mentioned and notes of remembrance of special times are sent. Those are like
gold to our family and especially myself.”

I can personally testify to the impact and comfort of the
cards my mother-in-law Pat received after Pop died – the ones that included
notes with special memories of their time with him were especially meaningful. While
we can say out-loud words to them, when things are still so new and raw and
overwhelming, a note may be treasured and remembered when words might be

The good news is that there are some simple and fairly
universal ways to connect that truly will comfort our grieving loved ones. But
we feel so inadequate, don’t we? There’s a passage in 2 Corinthians 1 that I
love so much:

“All praise to God, the Father of
our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all
comfort. 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.”

Do you see that? God not only comforts US in all our
troubles – He does it in part so that we can comfort others. That is a
powerful notion, and the knowledge that God has equipped us to comfort our
loved ones should give us some courage.

So here’s what we CAN do. We can be helpers along the way, by
continuing to reach out, even if you don’t understand, even if you don’t get a
response. Or if you get an unexpected response. By accepting, really just
accepting, the way their grief is coming out, or not coming out. Remember that
your expectation of what their grief should look like may be completely
disconnected from their reality. Be careful not to judge.

Remember that if you want to come in close, it must be on their
terms. Period. Anything else will be like a dripping faucet, like annoying noise.

Grief often must take a very solitary path. One friend said:
“Sometimes being alone with grief is good. Sometimes it is not. [But] it is not
up to others to decide the moments.”


That’s profound … it’s not up to ME to decide when I want to
come alongside, it’s up to my grieving friend. Sometimes they do need solitary
space. And sometimes they need YOU.

So spend time if you can, keep reaching out if you can’t. Whether
you are physically with them or reaching out to them some other way, LISTEN.
Even if they don’t talk. Even if they only cry. Or sit there staring. Listen to
what they are saying. To what they’re not saying. Tune in to them, instead of
tuning into your own natural desire to “fix” this or make it better somehow.
You can’t, you will be thwarted, and chances are you will not be a help to your
friend at all. A friend who has lost two children said:

The grief is there, even when I’m
smiling; acknowledge my grief – say their name; my tears are an invitation to
sit quietly/silently next to me; resist the urge of trying to say something to
make it better – even a hug, or, “I remember, too” might be all I need.

The holidays are just HARD. Think of all the traditions
altered – the family pictures smaller, maybe a favorite recipe or movie that
sends a griever reeling. Unexpected tsunamis of grief, I call those, and they
can hit out of nowhere. This is so true, and it made me cry: “Doesn’t matter how
long it’s been – there’s always an empty stocking, there’s always an empty

Most prepare themselves as best as they can, knowing what is
likely to come. They often “pre-grieve” the event – perhaps the two weeks
leading up to it have been so very hard, but the event itself turns out to be
less painful than expected. I asked my friends how they are feeling leading
into the holidays, and these are some of their responses:

  • Leading up to the holidays? It varies day to
    day: anxiety, sadness, tears, numbness, lament, resignation, “girding my heart”
    in preparation for the inevitable sense of loss and needing to hide behind my
    fake happy face so that I don’t ruin everyone’s happiness. 
  • I’m feeling sad, nervous, afraid that the
    deeper grief could return like when I had first received the news of her death.
    I am afraid of going backwards on my grief journey. I am afraid of the memories
    (good and bad) that could come up. I am nervous about finding personal handmade
    ornaments that she had made over the years and memories of her in all the Christmas
    boxes. I am fearful about taking off the lids of the Christmas storage bins. I
    am starting to cry, just writing this.
  • am very much looking forward to celebrating
    Christmas with my family. There will always be an element of sadness, and
    perhaps a tear or two in my heart for the loss of my sweetheart in that he is
    not here to share in the hugs, laughter, and kisses with me. But for me,
    Christmas tells of a hope and joy that man in himself cannot achieve by
    himself. It brings me stability in my life that no matter “what is NOW,” Christ
    never changes in His love, His message, His care and fellowship with me. It
    will remain the same now and forever. This makes the sadness bearable, knowing
    it is for only a little while and I will laugh with him again. And family – Oh!
    How precious it is to share your heart with them in such a time as this.

EVERYONE can relate to grief, whether in small or big
things. Pain is pain, grief is grief. Yes, of course some kinds of grief are
more complicated than others and that’s often when we say, “I can’t
imagine what it’s like … what you’re going through.”

I will leave you with this challenge: PLEASE TRY. Try to
imagine their pain, dismay, disillusionment, hopelessness, as they are
feeling it … and also their relief, their joy, their peace, when it comes. We must
not have expectations, of ourselves or others, for better or for worse. Let’s
come around and under them, like Aaron and Hur when Moses’ grew too weary to
hold his staff.

Moses’ arms soon became so tired he
could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on.
Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held
steady until sunset. (Exodus 17:12)

They could not do his work for him. But their words would
not have helped him to hold that staff up. Neither would their discomfort or
fear or unwillingness to be close to a really hard thing for fear the weakness
might spill over onto them. They undoubtedly did not understand the importance –
the eternal significance – of what happens when we quietly come in close. Let us
find our grievers a place to sit and rest, and then stay right there, doing
the things they’re too tired to do, and mostly just BEING. Being with them,
loving them, carrying them through the holidays.

That’s how we help. I know … it’s hard to imagine.



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