by Kayleen Reusser
My dad died August 25, 2005, the result of an unsuccessful surgery to repair an enlarged aortic aneurysm. Without the surgery the aneurysm could have burst, killing him at any time. The months following his death were a blur. I worked in a college library and had to immediately return to work for the new school year. My older children were in college and my youngest in high school, so their lives were filled with school duties as well. My husband’s work in a factory also kept him busy.
Having little time to grieve became a disadvantage as the Christmas holidays approached. Along with our families, my two sisters and I wondered how to handle our usual holiday traditions in Dad’s absence. Who would distribute our extended family’s gifts to each other on Christmas Eve? Dad always did that. Who would buy the piece of jewelry Dad always gave to Mom? Who would sit in his chair at the head of the table during meals? Dad had loved each of us unconditionally and we missed him. To replace him without thought during those special occasions seemed dishonorable.
The Bible says, “There is . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4). Unfortunately, the time to mourn can seem to interfere with the message of Christmas, which is joy. Joy can be difficult to manifest for people dealing with loss of a loved one. One thing that can help is to be prepared to deal with grief at Christmas.
Acknowledge Your Feelings.
The first year after Dad died I tried ignoring my grief as Christmas approached. It didn’t work. Holiday music grated on my nerves as it was far from “the hap-hap-happiest season of all.” To croon “There’s nowhere like home for the holidays” was a lie when every visit to my parents’ home reminded me of Dad and how he would not be here to celebrate with us.
Attending a seminar that focused on ways to handle grief during the holidays helped. The instructors provided ideas for achieving a sense of normalcy. (Would anything ever be normal again?) Their suggestions alleviated my anxiety about greeting the season of Christ’s birth with joy when my heart was heavy.
One suggestion that meant much to me was to create a memorial in his honor. Our family chose to do this by hanging an ornament with a photo (of Dad and his characteristic smile) on the front of our Christmas tree. Seeing it among the twinkling lights reminded me each time I drew near of Dad’s happy outlook on life.
Every year since Dad’s death, my sister and her daughter have honored him by taking holiday gifts to the local animal shelter in memory of his hobby of raising dogs.
After my mother-in-law died of cancer, another daughter-in-law burned a candle during daytime hours for weeks leading up to Christmas in her honor.
When thinking of ways to honor a loved one, it can be soothing to bless others simultaneously. My friend and author Cathy Shouse purchases a poinsettia each year to decorate her church in memory of her mother-in-law who died several years ago. “My mother-in-law’s name is printed in the church bulletin along with the names of several other people who have passed away and are being honored by members of the church,” said Cathy. “After Christmas, we take the flowers home and continue honoring our loved ones by caring for the plants.”
Grief can feel like a solitary process, but it can help to accept comfort from family and friends. A few weeks after Dad’s death, a friend sent me a card. “I know Christmas will be difficult for you this year,” Tonya wrote. “I’m praying God will bless you this holiday season.” Her contact reminded me I wasn’t alone.
Jonathan and David had this kind of friendship. Jonathan said to his friend, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the lord, saying, ‘The lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever’” (1 Samuel 20:42). These friends were there for each other. That proved especially true when David later cared for Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, after Jonathan’s death (2 Samuel 4:4).
The Christmas season can take a strenuous toll on individuals suffering from loss of a loved one. Friends offering a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear can lessen the impact.
Jesus spoke about the inevitability of grief in our lives when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
My friend Susan discovered this comfort the Christmas following her father’s suicide. “I had just graduated from college,” she said. “My life was supposed to be filled with excitement over new possibilities. Instead, it came to a screeching halt. I was shocked and devastated.”
Susan struggled throughout the fall. Then in December, while singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” something occurred to her. “The words from the song, ‘Born that man no more may die,’ took on new meaning,” she said. “I realized for the first time in my life what Christmas was about. It wasn’t a matter of doing something or focusing on what I didn’t have, but focusing instead on what God gave us on Christmas Day. The weight of grief lifted from my heart.”
Care for Yourself.
I was shocked at how pain from Dad’s death affected more than just my emotions. Getting out of bed, choosing clothes to wear, and deciding what food to eat became difficult as Christmas approached. Concentrating on doing things I enjoyed such as volunteering to help with a charity, attending a candlelight service, calling an old friend to wish her Merry Christmas, and taking a child shopping for his parents’ gift helped assuage my sluggish movements. By thinking less of my loss and focusing more on others at Christmas, I obeyed the words of Paul in Philippians, “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (2:4).
As the days got closer to the season of joy that first year after Dad’s death, I cried more often and apologized less. Many in our extended family found it difficult to smile during our gift exchange, but we knew Dad would not want us to be sad at this family event. He would want us to feel happy.
The following Christmas we were able to talk about Dad with much less weeping. It didn’t mean we missed him any less. We simply were better able to handle our loss.
Churches can help those who are dealing with grief at Christmas by providing support. One example is a Living and Giving Tree—a full-sized tree (artificial is recommended) placed in a central location, such as the sanctuary, at Christmastime. Envelopes with names of people from the church who have suffered loss during the past year are hung on the tree. Other church members choose a name and select an appropriate gift to the bereaved, offering friendship during a difficult time through a meal, a gift, or an invitation to go caroling.
Two gifts that will mean more than anything to people deep in the pit of grief are your undivided attention and your unconditional acceptance of their journey.
Grief can be especially hard to bear at Christmas, the season created to bring joy to all people through Christ’s birth. But if we accept the support of friends, share with others, and acknowledge our feelings of loss, we can move toward the road of healing and true understanding of Jesus’ birth.
Kayleen Reusser is a freelance writer in Bluffton, Indiana.
Comfort and Hope for the Holidays
If you are dealing with loss and sadness this season while everyone else seems almost annoyingly cheerful, take comfort. Perhaps reading will help distract you. Or perhaps someone you know could be lifted up by some stories. If so, look into:
The Greatest Christmas Stories of All Time As the book describes on its back cover, it’s filled with. . . humorous stories for those who have suffered sadness, disappointments, and setbacks. Stories of great compassion for those who find themselves growing hardened to the plight of others. Stories of courage, sacrifice, and unconditional love for those who feel their faith in humankind growing dim. Stories of hope for those who are struggling to find their way in the darkness. And there are stories that remind us all of the true reason for the season.
Read from O. Henry, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and more.
Find out more: www.standardpub.com