Andy Williams famously sang the beloved Christmas song, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
As a youngster, when I heard it playing on my parent’s stereo, it served as an unofficial announcement that we were definitively in the holiday season. But for people who have experienced a significant loss—especially if it is recent, unexpected, or traumatic—those words may feel muted or hollow—even irritating. They may not be most concerned with how to celebrate the season as they are with debating whether to observe it at all.
Loss and grief challenge our emotional norms and strike at dissonant chords within us. It is typically marked by conflicting emotions that result from changes in familiar rhythms, patterns, routines and presence of the one missing. As Edna St. Vincent Millay so poignantly wrote, “The presence of that absence is everywhere.”1
And of course, bereavement is not always limited to loss as a result of death. There are many other reasons why one might not be in the mood to feel merry this Christmas, such as loved ones dealing with significant illness, a close relative who is being devastated by the ravages of dementia, the loss of a job, and, of course, this has been the year of the pandemic that will leave many people separated from family members with whom they would wish celebrate.
If you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one this Christmas, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone and that there are steps you can take to make this season a bit more bearable—even meaningful—even if it isn’t the one you for which you hoped.
1. Adjust Your Expectations
While each person’s grief experience is unique, one commonality is that things don’t feel the same. Some sorrow in grief is unavoidable. Loving someone wholeheartedly requires the kind of vulnerability that leaves you susceptible to emotional pain when he or she is no longer part of your life. Fortunately, the joys of relationship with loved ones usually have enriched our lives in a manner that exceeds the pain of the loss. This is why we are willing to make that investment in the first place.
Nonetheless, there are times people unnecessarily endure suffering that is avoidable due to their rigid expectations about the way and how long they should grieve. Some impatiently chide themselves for still feeling distress a few months following the loss—even though it is common for a grief episode to go on for 18 months to 2 years before being fully resolved. Others fear that if they stop feeling bad too soon, it is a sign that they really didn’t love that person as deeply as they thought.
It is helpful for people to let their grief process be what it needs to be. To mindfully observe it without demanding that it be different than it is. By being kind and patient with themselves, they will create a gentler path through their grief process.
Unrealistic expectations frequently apply to the Christmas season as well. Too often, people stumble into the holidays after a death believing things need to remain exactly as they previously were. They tell themselves if they try hard enough to be positive and maintain old traditions that they can will themselves and other family members to not feel the loss—only to crash to earth when an inevitable moment of sadness or awareness of the missing presence of the loved one occurs.
On the other hand, the notion of “cancelling Christmas”—however tempting that may seem—isn’t necessarily a good option either, especially for those who have caring responsibilities, like parents, who may feel obliged to observe Christmas in some way. It often is best to hold a scaled-down version of the usual Christmas celebration. And to do that one needs to…
2. Make A Plan
When we are in a period of greater-than-usual stress, doing good self-care is vitally important. The more predictability you can give yourself, the better you will tolerate the increased demand on your coping reserves. Try to set as consistent a schedule as possible with respect to eating and sleeping—and even though there typically lots of temptations with sugary concoctions during this season, try to keep your junk food intake at a minimum. Also, it doesn’t hurt to do some regular moderate exercise, like walking, as a way of reducing your body’s stress response.
Scale back the amount of energy you invest in holiday trappings. This is not the time to traipse through crowded stores on long shopping jaunts looking for that elusive perfect gift. Too much emphasis on the material aspects of Christmas may make it seem shallower and emptier than it already feels. This is the year to be modest in gift giving. Nor is it the season to compete for the neighborhood Decorated-Yard-of-the-Year Award.
Be selective in the number of social invitations you accept. Don’t be pressured into feeling obligated to do anything. Remember you only have to do as much as you want to do. Take the words “should” and “ought” out of your vocabulary. Use space that you have created to intentionally lean into your faith and find strength and comfort resting in God’s presence and reading His word. Take time to think about what Jesus entering into our world to be our Savior really means to you. And while you stay in God’s presence, make sure to…
3. Stay Connected
While you should be choosy about what social gatherings you attend, this is not the time to go into seclusion from others even though you may feel like hiding away until the season is over. Research on grieving indicates that mourning is best worked through in the presence of “caring others”—not in isolation. Identify some individuals in your life with whom you feel comfortable and know they are in your corner; where you can talk about what has happened and your relationship with the person who died. People who are safe will give you permission to be honest about how you’re feeling, will validate your experience, and will not try to “fix” you or demand you be something or somewhere other than where you currently are. Give yourself permission to accept offers of help and comfort from others and don’t feel like a failure for doing so. And, lastly…
4. Find Creative Ways of Remembering Your Loved One
This may involve doing something completely new or different that lessens the sense of loss or honors the loved one in a memorable way. For those with this inclination, Eleanor Haley’s column, “16 Ideas for Creating New Holiday Tradition After a Death”2 is a great resource with some very thoughtful and creative notions.
Other individuals may not be ready to set aside cherished traditions that have a connection with their family member such as listening to a particular piece of Christmas music or watching a favorite movie like It’s A Wonderful Life. So, maintaining that as a part of their Christmas observance keeps them connected to their loved one in a comforting way. As was noted earlier, there is no single, cookie-cutter approach that is right for everyone.
The first Christmas following the death of my father-in-law, all family members gathered and took turns sharing a prized memory with him before toasting his memory with some eggnog. It was a moment that to this day we recall with great delight despite the sadness that he was no longer physically present with us.
Bottom line, it is wise to anticipate and accept that in this first Christmas season things will feel less than ideal and possibly even very difficult in moments. Be gentle with yourself—giving yourself the time and space to grieve. It is probable that next Christmas you may be able to look back, see that you are a little way further down the road, and, with God’s grace, feel more able to embrace the wonder of Christmas.
- “The presence of your absence is everywhere,” adapted from a letter by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to Llewelyn Powys, April 20, 1931 from Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, (Allan Ross Macdougall, Ed.). New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
- 16 Ideas for Creating New Holiday Tradition After a Death – Eleanor Haley