Saturday, December 18, 2010

Handling Grief at Christmas

by Lynda Elliott

My personal grief

My father died at noon on a Christmas day when I was 20 years old, so I can understand why people grieve during the holiday season. Although my father had been ill for several years, I felt the bizarre combination of shock, loss, and relief. I even felt joy because he was finally out of pain and with Jesus. During the next few months, those emotions constantly bounced around inside of me until I felt like my mind was playing the old children’s game of Fruit Basket Turn Over. One day, I was able to feel joyful, the next, I grieved, the next I felt totally lost.

Late on that Christmas afternoon, my husband and I returned to our apartment. When I opened the door I heard joyful voices singing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas!” In our haste, we had left the Christmas music playing. The colorful lights on our tree were cheerfully twinkling, seeming to mock my father’s death. “How could anybody die on Christmas day?” I asked myself. Everything felt surreal. I felt a little crazy, but later I learned that my feelings were the normal responses to shock and grief.

Until my father died, I had not experienced the death of anyone close to me. I had no idea how to bear grief. I was expecting another baby to be born in a month, so I decided to ignore my grief and pretend that my father was still alive until our son was born. That sounds a little crazy, but I know now that it was the only way I could temporarily cope. However, when our son was born, I had to finally face the loss of my father and learn how to bear grief.

Your grief

I know that many people are experiencing loss at this time of year, especially. For example, you may have been divorced since the last Christmas or one of your sons or daughters may be at war or a friendship may have been broken over the last year. Perhaps it’s health problems that have robbed you of many activities that were common to your life before this year or someone you love may have died.

Grief is an experience that is common to everyone. Nobody who has ever lived on this earth has been able to avoid it, but it often comes to us when we least expect it. We can easily be overwhelmed and stuck in grief for years, if we do not have some understanding of it.

Getting Through Grief

Since my father died, I have learned three things that have helped me deal with grief.

1. Grief usually comes in waves, which lasts about 20 to 30 minutes.

The body cannot sustain such strong grieving for much longer than that. After my father died, I had been afraid that such strong grief would just consume me. I feared that my grief would drag me down into a dark hole and I would never be able to come out again.

When I found out that the waves had a limit, I felt safe to let go, to cry, or talk or write my feelings down. In the months that followed, the grief waves also came less and less. I learned that the Holy Spirit is the God of all comfort (2 Cor.1:1-3) and I learned to ask Him to enter those grief waves with me. He did and He brought comfort. The grief hurt, but I wasn’t nearly as afraid.

2. Emotions don’t know time and space.

Memories are stimulated through the senses. For example, you may hear a familiar song that takes you emotionally back to a very sad place. The smell of potpourri may cause you to think of familiar previous family rituals that can no longer occur. The sight of a Christmas ornament can remind you of people who are no longer alive.

A few years after my father died, an uncle came to visit us. As I hugged him, I smelled Old Spice cologne, which had been my father’s favorite. Suddenly, I felt like a helpless 20-year-old whose heart had just been broken. I didn’t know how to come forward emotionally and I got stuck in a miserable emotional state that Christmas.

Now I remind myself to pay attention to my senses before each holiday season begins. I begin to say to myself, “That was then and this is now.” I learned to pause between the stimuli and my response. I began to practice enjoying what I have “now,” rather than automatically letting myself move emotionally backward in my mind. I have learned to celebrate the season for what it is “right now” in my life, remembering the birth of Jesus, counting the ways His birth has brought blessings and joy into my life.

This was a discipline that I had to practice and, year by year, this process has helped me live in the present.

3. Confine and assign time to your feelings

We don’t need to ignore our feelings altogether, but it’s helpful to deliberately make a time and place for them.

I began to set aside a period of time to think about my father. Sometimes I wrote about him in a journal. Other times I talked about him to my children, sometimes I lit a Christmas candle and gave thanks for him. I also looked through a scrapbook of my childhood. However, I placed a time limit on my grief and nostalgia.

I had to exercise my will to do this, making a decision to invest most of my energy into the family members who were still with me, serving friends and strangers who had needs. I invested my energy more and more into serving than grieving, and creating new memories, rather than looking back.

Years from now, you may find yourself writing or telling your grief story. Your pain will be less, because you will have experienced the Lord’s comfort. You will have also practiced the process of grieving. You will know that every day is a new day. Every day will train you to help others in grief, just as our Lord promised.

There’s no doubt that the holidays can be a sad time for those of us who are experiencing loss. But with God’s strength and grace, He can help us make it through the sadness finding peace and healing that is found in Him –The Prince of Peace. Jesus continues to seek and find us at Christmas, bringing hope to our hurting hearts.

1 comment:

  1. This is my first Christmas without my Mom, who died in July. This list and article are incredibly helpful - especially #3. My husband and I talk often about the idea of 'indulging' in grief - those times when you make a choice to fully enter into the memories, the sadness, and the longing - and I have been struggling with that, feeling as though it wasn't helping me heal or move on with the next steps of life without mom.. the idea of choosing to enter in with time constraints is very helpful to me and one that I will indeed use. Thanks for this great resource!