How to Deal with Grief at Christmastime

Steve Watson | OnFaith Voices By on

When you spend your career as a teacher and a pastor, as I have, you make a lot of friends. And this time of year, it can feel like they’re all grieving. I know a woman whose father died on Christmas Eve. Another friend’s brother was murdered on December 22nd. Last week, a remarkable young woman who’d joined my church this year took her own life.

Sorry to be melodramatic here, but sometimes it seems like people are dying everywhere.

And even if you or your loved ones don’t have one of these anniversaries you’d rather not celebrate this holiday season, chances are a number of people you’ll be with this week — perhaps yourself included — are looking around and grieving the loss of someone who’s not there to share the moment as well.

Other than drowning ourselves in eggnog — tempting, but trust me, a move you’ll regret — what can we do this week with all our loss?

1. Get out of the house

Thankfully, this happens for most of us pretty naturally around the holidays. At least now and then, we have places to go other than our work. But even if we don’t, we’ve got to find them. And then — the harder part, for most of us — we have to pick our spots and talk about our grief with the people we’re with.

I run a weekly men’s group that’s got a couple of recovering addicts in it, and they’ve helped us all have some of the most candid conversations I’ve ever had about the things we do when we feel like garbage. And one of the things we’ve all agreed on is that in when we feel low, our instincts don’t serve us very well. We crave distraction and isolation when we’re down, when the thing we need is undistracted togetherness.

So you use alcohol or porn or whatever to avoid your problems, and you feel ashamed, so you withdraw from open company with other people and look for something to distract yourself from your shame or pain. Which often leads you right back to the alcohol or the porn or whatever it was that got that vicious cycle going. What you need is the freedom to openly be yourself with other people and so to stop accumulating more problems and more distractions.

The same is true in a way with grief. We feel low, so we don’t have the energy to go be with others. Or we wonder if anyone will care or understand, so we keep our mouths shut around them. Which doesn’t do them or us any good. Our friends and family get a fake and shallow version of our company, and we get, well, nothing.

So go to a party or a meal or a worship service or whatever. Even go to more than one. And if asked how you’re doing, say that you’re down. Not everyone will be very helpful with this information. Some people will sort of grimace and walk away. But you’ll have the chance to be who you are, and you just might get some empathy, which will likely feel pretty good.

2. Be where you’ve got to be

You may wish you were happier, or someone may tell you to cheer up, but the heart’s going to go where the heart’s going to go, and you’ve got to let it. Sure, the stages of grief move through denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, and depression on toward acceptance. But they don’t usually move that linearly and often not at the pace you’d expect. So be where you’re going to be.

I mentioned that a wonderful young adult I knew took her life last week. We hadn’t had a long history together, but I’d been a confessor and friend to her this fall, had visited her in the hospital, and felt a kind of bond with her. And last night, in the middle of typing an email to some colleagues, I looked up at my wife and told her just how sad I realized I felt. And she walked up behind me and took my hand, and I just started to cry. A good, hard cry.

And that, to be honest, felt pretty good.

If you need to grieve, then going ahead and doing that feels a lot better than stuffing it in.

3. Know you’re not alone

Have you ever noticed how full of pain the Christmas story is? From the rejects and prostitutes in Jesus’ ancestry, to the drama and near-divorce of Mary’s pregnancy, to the grubby setting of Jesus’ birth and the raging tyrant that drives baby Jesus into exile and butchers his neighbors, it’s pretty bleak stuff, this setting of Jesus’ birth.

Amongst the many other reasons for this, I think it underscores what Jesus’ followers later came to think about the meaning of his life for them. That in becoming one of us, God knows all that we go through, from the inside.

So amongst the other things that Christmas tells us is that Jesus knows our grief and is more than happy to sit with us in it, even if our friends and family don’t know how. Take a walk and tell Jesus how you’re doing, or sit down and write to him on your laptop, or in a journal. And invite Jesus to help you see and know how he is with you.

4. Ask Jesus to fight for life

No matter what spin we put on it, death is a curse. It’s a nasty awful undoing of life that we experience secondhand again and again until it comes for us. And when we’re grieving, we feel the offense of all this, as we should.

But at the heart of Christmas is the seed of Jesus’ mission for death itself to die. For life to eclipse it in every form. So that sweet baby Jesus in the manger is a death-beating slugger in the making. One who’s ready to step into our corner and fight on our behalves. So ask him to. Ask Jesus to fight for life in the people you know who are dying, literally or metaphorically. Ask Jesus to say hi to the ones you miss and take good care of them.

Ask Jesus to fight for life in you, to hold the tears of your grief and grow something new and hopeful right in the midst of them.

As you grieve this Christmastime, may you find the space to do just that, and to do it with friends, and to one day look up and be surprised at just how full of life you are again.

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OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.