I cannot believe Christmas is next week! As the holiday buzz takes over the mainstream, I can’t help but empathize with those for whom this season will never be the same again. For some, it’s a growing sense of dread at the reality that there will be one or more empty chairs around the Christmas tree. For others, it’s a marker that indicates just how long it’s been since their loved one departed and the hole in their heart was first formed.
How can this holy season of a Promised Child, invoke such pain and loneliness? The reality is, it’s just not a jolly time for everyone. The green and red adornments coupled with the scent of evergreens and excited children dreaming up their wish lists, can feel like a knife being twisted in the hearts of those who’ve experienced a loss. The holiday commercials dripping with sentimentality and jingles that show the mad dash for presents can evoke memories that seem so real, but unfortunately, remain confined to the chambers of our mind.
Family holiday portraits and cards, although sent with love, can seem to tease and taunt the afflicted, saying, “You don’t have this anymore.”
If you are in mourning or in a recurring cycle of grief, I know this Christmas will be particularly hard. My heart goes out for you, however, don’t feel badly, for feeling badly. Embrace your emotions and go through the pain. You’re no less brave for being transparent with yourself and others, then if you held it all inside. Not yet sure what Christmas will look like? That’s ok. Don’t feel pressured to accept invitations or obligations. Take your time and communicate to your loved ones that you will let them know as soon as you know. This is your journey; lean on your network, but make the timing your own.
It’s been almost a decade since I was forced to say goodbye to my first husband, Brandon, and I can admit, there are still twinges of pain associated with certain moments of the season. As a newlywed, I remember being so excited to start our own Christmas traditions, to later be passed on to our future little ones. Collecting ornaments, picking out our tree, watching Brandon struggle to set up the lights, were all tender occasions that spoke to the joy and anticipation that I typically associated with the festive season.
Just as vividly, however, I remember my first Christmas as a widow. It was terrible. I couldn’t wait to leave town and get away from all the triggers that had once brought me such peace. I balked at the idea of spending the holiday with anyone, not even my own family. My heart had been shattered, and I guess I didn’t want to be the “Debbie Downer” around my family or friend’s tables. In retrospect, running away was the worst thing I could have done. I should have trusted my circle to handle my pain and to grieve with me, as they already were. Sure, they didn’t feel it exactly like I did, but they felt me and they loved me- I should have trusted their support. Instead, I escaped to a bed and breakfast in the North Georgia mountains, with nothing but God and Nature to keep me company. I grieved, cried, and wrote to express my pain. As Christmas morning dawned, I inevitably realized that I didn’t want to be alone anymore, so I drove back to Atlanta, crying all the way.
I share this anecdote, to encourage those of you supporting someone who may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death- the most important thing you can do is let them know that you have their back. What kept me going was ultimately knowing that I had the option to tap into my support group, should I have needed it. Below are some practical tips on how you can navigate this season while remaining sensitive to those in mourning.
How Can You Support Your Grieving Loved One This Christmas?
- Respect their space. Don’t force them to put on a happy face for you. Take their cues and know when they need room to breathe. Don’t crowd them. If you’re not sure, send in the family pet or kid-they’re great at giving what’s needed, whether it’s a hug or just the weight of their presence, without demanding much in return.
- Extend the open door invitation and really mean it. Understand that might mean a 3 a.m. call, or unexpected need to visit; be patient and loving. They can sense if you feel inconvenienced, and they most likely won’t try again.
- Give them permission to ugly cry or not. I’m not typically a crier; my family and friends know this. They extended comfort whether I was dry heaving from an outburst or sitting in stone-faced silence. Accept them where they are in their grief journey.
- Act normal. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t treat them with kid gloves as if they’ll break. If they steal away for a moment to themselves, don’t send out a search party. Don’t feel as if you can’t be joyous because they’re broken; that will only add to the burden they may already feel they are to you. Just be yourself and love on them as you usually would.
- Honor their loved one’s memory. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. You might say something like, “I just want you to know, we’re all thinking about _______ today. We love you and we’re honored you would share such a private moment with us. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.” That’s it. Hug it out (if they do that sort of thing) and move on. Don’t set a vigil.
- Don’t put a time limit on their grief. Follow their lead. This season has not only changed for them, it’s changed them! They’re still on the journey to finding out exactly what that means. Be considerate as they are striving to find out what their new “normal” is. Be honored that they’ve allowed you to voyage with them.
- Pray. It sounds simple enough, but oftentimes, the one facing the trial can hardly find the strength to utter a prayer. Intercede on their behalf. The Bible says even the Holy Spirit will pray for us when we don’t know what to say!  Respect their space. This isn’t the time to rain fire down from heaven; rather, pray for them in your heart, ask that the Holy Spirit drench them in His love, comfort, peace, and grace. Ask Him to heal their broken heart in His timing and show you how to support them during this difficult time.
Please be encouraged to know that it truly won’t burn like this always…it will sting, but it won’t burn. You will make it through. Be easy on yourself, and allow yourself time to feel, yell, cry, and shout. For more tips and support to navigate what you’re feeling, please check out my posts entitled: It’s Ok To Not Be Ok and The Perfect Storm.
 “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Romans 8: 26, 27 NIV