Grieving at Christmas: A Family Guide
Therapists and hotlines report an increase in calls during the Christmas holidays. It is no surprise, given the heightened expectations we all have, the constant images of families together and rejoicing, our own memories of joyful Christmases past. But this year is different, because you have lost a loved one. It’s OK to feel confused and conflicted if you hear “Joy to the World” and feel little joy in your heart. Healing won’t happen all at once. Grief therapists tell us that recovery from a painful loss is a slow process. But would you believe me if I suggested that despite your grief, Christmas this year could become a blessing, a time of hope for you and your family? That the pain you’re feeling will eventually ease, and even give way to the beginnings of healing and hope for future merrier Christmases? Here are a few of the steps I believe you can take to get to that point.
Gather your family together. A friend of mine lost her mother shortly before Christmas. She and her brothers lived some distance away, but returned to be with their father for his first holiday alone. They wanted to cheer him up, so they put up the tree and decorated it lavishly, as their mother had always done. The following year, they traveled again to be with their dad. They searched, unsuccessfully, for the tree and decorations. Only then did he tell them that the day they left, he threw out the tree and all its finery. He could not bear looking at it. Many families go through painful and unnecessary misunderstandings at Christmas because they haven’t taken the time to talk honestly and openly about the grief they’re feeling. As you struggle with your grief, gather your family to talk about it and decide how to deal with the holidays. Will you all come together for the Christmas meal? For religious services? If you have family traditions and customs, will you observe them this year? What about decorating the house, putting up a tree, and Christmas caroling? Is it OK to let some of the traditions slide for a year as you nurse your loss? As your family talks and shares, be gentle but honest about your feelings. It’s better to know everyone’s expectations. And don’t be afraid to mention your loved one by name. Choose to make the holiday a celebration of his or her life. What better time to speak of the love, the care, and the gifts of your beloved? After a Christmas meal, linger at the table to share your favorite memories of your loved one. What special role did he or she play in each of your lives? Laugh a little, cry a little, and warmly remember life with that person, wrinkles and all. When we lose someone, we realize the many things we learned from and loved about that person. Looking back, we can appreciate the good times and the fun, the helpful advice they gave us, the same story they must have told 100 times, a special talent they shared. Christmas is a perfect time to cherish these memories.
Find your own way to grieve. Each family member will handle the loss of a loved one differently and move through the grief process at a different pace. No one can be responsible for another person’s recovery. But you can listen and support one another along the way. With the holidays upon you, well-meaning people may give you well-intended but misguided advice on how to handle the season. You may hear things such as: “Just keep smiling!” or “You’ve got to be strong for the children!” or “Just keep busy!” or even “Don’t feel bad; he’s in a better place!” This sort of advice suggests that you suppress your feelings of grief and postpone the work of healing until “after the holidays.” But while “shopping ‘til you drop” may allow you to fall asleep more quickly at night, it won’t solve your fundamental need to deal patiently with each day’s hurt and challenge as you move toward healing. And to those who say, “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve!” I’d respond, “Why not?” You won’t cry on every shoulder, but surely it’s appropriate to honestly express your struggles to the people who care the most, your very own family. Talk about the tough moments, the things that help, and what the hardest thing for you is at Christmas. Not only will this let your loved ones help, but it also allows you to hear your own feelings, which can be of significant help in understanding how you’re progressing.
Help children understand. Christmas this year may be an especially difficult and confusing time for youngsters, especially if this is their first experience of death. If, as the family gathers, or in the midst of Christmas excitement, children see you weeping in the corner or with a grief-stricken face, their joy will quickly turn to anxiety and confusion. Hold them close and tell them Christmas is going to be a little tough for you this year because you’re sad. Tell them you’re sad because someone you love dearly is gone. But also reassure them that it’s OK for them to feel happy and excited because Christmas has arrived. Tell them that in fact you want them to rejoice, and that your loved one would want the same thing, but that they shouldn’t be surprised if they see a tear on your face. Tell them tears are a good thing, because they remind us of how special our loved one is to us. Then let them go on with their celebrating and excitement. Have a friend or relative on hand as an ally who can watch the kids for a while when you feel overwhelmed or just need some time to yourself. And a special note to dads grieving at Christmas: You may think it’s a sign of weakness for a man to cry in front of the children. On the contrary, dads need to let their kids witness genuine feelings, and nothing is more genuine than tears. This lets children know that it’s strong, not weak, for people to cry when it hurts. In the book When Children Grieve, the authors stress that children are likely to experience grief and loss in ways similar to their parents. Parents should feel free to speak comfortably about death, answer children’s questions honestly, and express feelings openly. In this way, children will learn how to grow through the painful losses in their own lives.
Take steps to help yourself. During the holiday season, begin each day with a prayer. Put your grieving heart in God’s loving care and let God know that you are open to God’s will for you. Ask for God’s care and love to make you stronger each day. Ask for the gift of hope and peace. Do something for someone who is alone, lonely, isolated, or in material need at the holidays. Offer some time as a volunteer visitor at a nursing home or hospital, in a local school, or at a soup kitchen. It may seem contradictory to seek ways to help others when you are hurting so much, but you will find that spending just a bit of time with someone who is lonely or downtrodden will give new meaning and consolation to you at the holidays. Think of your effort as a memorial you are offering to your loved one at the holidays. Join a support group with others who are grieving. Ask friends who have suffered loss where you might find such a group locally. Support groups exist in virtually every community, and are often sponsored by churches, hospitals, neighborhood associations, and other organizations. Many support groups report an upsurge of attendance as the holidays approach. Know that you are in good company. You can find others who understand what it is like to lose a loved one at this time of year.