The topic of how to handle grief and loss during the holidays might not seem to be a good fit on a blog dedicated to encouraging people to live a more abundant life and go after their dreams. However, if you have experienced the loss of a loved one between November and January, you know that the pain can be a setback for more than one area of life.
While living an abundant life does not mean that you won’t face pain – sometimes even excruciating pain – if you want to continue on the journey, you can’t be mired in the past.
At some point, you need to heal.
Fourteen years ago, on December 18, my father passed on. While it was overall a relief to his family because he had Alzheimer’s and no longer could feed himself, let alone recognize his own wife and children, it was still hard.
At the time, I lived in Texas whereas the rest of my family lived (still live) in Minnesota, so my mom told me she’d hold off on the funeral for a couple of days so I wouldn’t have to change the flight ticket I’d purchased for my annual trip home for Christmas.
It was a hard trip home.
Harder still was what happened a week later, on Christmas day. The nursing home where my grandmother was living called my mom to tell her that my grandmother was “not responding.”
In other words, she could not be awakened from her sleep of the night before.
My mom encouraged my sister and I to go visit our grandmother, believing it would be our last chance to see her alive.
My mom was right. A couple of hours after we returned from the poignant visit, the nursing home called to inform my mother that her mother had died.
Exactly a week after her husband, my father, had died. Just a few days after his funeral.
It was my first glimpse into how many people need to learn to handle grief and loss during the holidays.
How I coped
It was a bittersweet holiday, because the very day my father died, I fell in love with the man I knew I would marry one day. In fact, I told my Grandma as much at that last visit with her. She’d always asked me, during my visits to Minnesota, if I had found anyone special yet, so I had to tell her.
I know she heard me.
Despite the two painful deaths that holiday season, I had fallen in love. And when I returned to Texas, the new “high” of being in love trumped the grief.
Or so I used to think. The fact is, I stuffed the grief for fourteen years.
Going through the motions
My romance with the Christmas season had started to fall away the year that my family had our last Christmas together before my dad was put into a special home for people with dementia. It was the worst Christmas day ever.
Suffice to say, neither my youngest sister nor I handled grief and loss during the holidays very well that year.
Then my grandparents (my grandpa was still alive at the time) ended up in a nursing home. A huge part of our family Christmas tradition had been to visit with my grandparents at their house on Christmas Eve.
When they sold their house and went into the nursing home, those days were forever lost.
Obviously, I would still go home to celebrate Christmas with my family, but it meant less and less with each passing year. My middle sister no longer participated, wouldn’t make the three-hour drive. (Long story, issues I’m still not certain of. Let’s just say her absence was both a blessing and a loss.)
By the Christmas following my dad and grandma’s deaths, I was married. Those first two years J and I flew to Minnesota to celebrate with my family. But it started to feel more like drudgery than a celebration.
My reasoning then was that, thanks to my youngest sister, we couldn’t talk about Jesus. It frustrated me to no end. The year our son was to turn two, I told J that I couldn’t celebrate Christmas if I couldn’t celebrate the birth of Christ. So I called my mom and told her we wouldn’t be coming to Minnesota for Christmas that year.
She said, “Oh, I understand. You have your own family now and want to start your own Christmas traditions.”
I didn’t bother to correct her.
The year B turned five, I had a bunionectomy right before his birthday in late November. Long story short, I felt like a cripple in those early weeks following the surgery, and could do nothing – nothing – to help decorate the Christmas tree that year.
So I handled grief and loss during the holidays as badly as I ever had – by wallowing in depression.
I thought the depression stemmed from two sources: first, my inability to be active; and second, the fact that my worst Christmas nightmare had come true: for B, the holiday had become all about getting presents. Despite our best efforts to prevent that mindset, despite our limiting the gifts he received.
Not that those situations didn’t have a real impact on me,but it never occurred to me that I had never fully grieved the loss of my dad and grandma seven years earlier. Which was the real reason that, for the past several years, Christmas had gradually lost its joy for me.
I didn’t recognize it anymore. And I didn’t like what it looked like.
Not only had I not reconciled with having lost two loved ones right around the holiday, but I was also grieving for the loss of Christmas Past. For almost a decade, I’d just been going through the motions of celebrating, ignoring the pain in my heart.
Fast forward to two years ago, almost to the day I’m writing this post
We had picked out a little pine tree on our property to bring inside and decorate. We decorated it.
And all the while, I had this feeling of dread inside. Like we were doing the wrong thing. I prayed, and felt strongly that the Lord was speaking to me that we were not to celebrate Christmas. I found a video about the “evils” of celebrating a “pagan” holiday, had J and B watch it, and we promptly removed the decorations from the tree and tossed the poor little thing into the ditch.
And my heart broke into a thousand pieces. Even though B didn’t seem too upset about it, I felt horrible for him. How dare I take those precious family traditions and memories away?
I also screamed inside, “Why, God, why?”
I didn’t realize He had work to do.
A few days ago, it began
A few days ago, snow was predicted. Then “wintry mix.” Then snow again. Snow in early December is not typical where we live, and I got excited. Why?
I despise cold weather unless there is snow.
So I usually tell myself. But, since I’m spilling it all here, let me go all the way: I like snow in December, because I want a white Christmas.
Even if I’m not celebrating it.
But as the day when winter weather was predicted drew nearer, the chance of it diminished. Then turned into plain-old boring rain. Then went back to a higher chance of wintry mix.
God used this ever-changing weather forecast, I know, because it made me start to think about Christmas. Did God really have us to quit celebrating it because He considers it sinful? Because Jesus never commanded us to celebrate His birth? If so, why, for the past two Christmases, have I longed so desperately to bring it back into our lives? Because I’m a rebellious child?
An internal nudging began persuading me that I had misinterpreted the Lord’s intention for us hitting “pause” on the holiday.
I got mad at the meteorologists for pulling my chain. I got mad at God for telling us to stop celebrating Christmas. But why should I care if I’m never going to see snow again?
Three days ago, the real reason for my angst emerged.
I had – finally – started to grieve, really grieve, the loss of my father and grandmother. Especially Grandma. I began to miss them both. My heart yearned with a deep ache for “the good old days.” For the way Christmas used to be.
Grief and loss during the holidays became a reality for me.
I began to wonder if my mom still feels this way, fourteen years later.
And, I cried. I cried off and on for two days. I told J all of what had been going through my head. I told him that I think that God hadn’t had us quit celebrating Christmas because it’s evil, or because it’s not really about Jesus. As I type these words, I’m confident in saying that God had us quit celebrating because in my heart, I was desperate to somehow turn the Christmas celebration with my son and husband into what it was when I was a kid.
How I healed, and how you can, too
I’ve missed celebrating Christmas the past two years. Felt depressed each December. Felt like God was punishing me somehow.
No. He needed to bring me to the breaking point where I would release the grief I’ve stuffed for so long. And where I would realize that it’s okay for Christmas Past to look completely different than Christmas Present.
If you have lost a loved one during the holiday season, and years later are still struggling with it, may I suggest that you haven’t fully grieved. You haven’t fully grieved the loss of the individual. Or what the individual brought to your life during Christmas. You may have been harboring anger toward God, and not let it out.
Let it all out. Preferably in the arms of someone who understands. Let yourself grieve the loss. Scream and cuss at God. He can take it.
That’s the first step toward healing. The next step is the one I’m taking now: to realize that Christmas can be celebrated in a myriad of ways. That as our seasons of life change, so do the ways we celebrate.
Embrace the changes. Seek the good in them. Understand that the past is in the past, and that’s a good thing, because you’re a wiser, stronger, more courageous person than you were back then.
I pray these many words help you to handle your own grief and loss during the holidays, and that, like me, this time of year will once again become a time of joy and sharing.
P.S. – As for whether my mom still grieves? I’m going to find out soon…when I call to ask if she’d like me to come home for Christmas this year.