It’s the “most wonderful time of the year”, or so they say.
Except, that it’s not for everybody. For some, this is the most painful time of the year.
For us, this Christmas is a potent mix of both.
We’ve been proactive in trying to get into the Christmas spirit in an effort to make this year a “joyous occasion”, and on some counts have been successful. We put the tree up the day before thanksgiving, have been blaring Christmas music at every turn, and have been seeking opportunities to do fun holiday related activities– such as last evening when we drove to LL Bean in Freeport, Maine to see the Christmas lights (which are fantastic).
But then, there are moments on the opposite side of the spectrum when the holidays actually make our pain worse– such as opening a box of Christmas decorations and realizing that there’s an extra stocking that we don’t need to use this year. Or, the fact that yesterday was my daughter’s Quinceañera– a day we had expected to celebrate with great joy, but obviously did not.
Instead, I found myself turning to my wife throughout the day and asking, “how are you doing?”only to hear the reply, “right now, I’m just trying to breathe”.
If this is the most wonderful time of the year for you, fantastic! I’m sincerely happy for you. However, I want to remind you, that it’s not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone.
For some, this time of year totally sucks.
Yes, the holidays have a way of ushering in a season of cheer, but they also have a way of drawing hurt to the surface and accentuating feelings of loss. Many of us this year are dividing our time between celebration and mourning, sometimes vacillating between the two in the same day.
Often, we feel like we’re doing it alone– and I can only imagine that so many others do too. Today I simply want to remind those who are quietly mourning this Christmas:
You are not alone.
And, for those who have had a wonderful year and are having no problem getting into the “Christmas spirit”, I wanted to remind you that as Jesus followers, we must not let those who mourn do so in isolation. In the book of Romans we are reminded that as people of Jesus, we should remember those who are hurting and even enter their grieving with them:
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Rm 12:15)
I realize that mourning with those who mourn is uncomfortable and messy and that it’s often easier to pretend like we don’t exist. Yet, I also know that so many out there long to come alongside the hurting, but simply aren’t sure how– messy things like community and mourning with those who mourn don’t seem to come naturally– often, it has to be learned and practiced. So, for those who long to become people who make the world a little less broken and a little more right, here’s how you can exemplify true Christmas spirit by coming alongside the hurting:
We’re not looking for magic answers, we’re not looking for someone who is “better equipped” to support us, we’re just looking for friends. Want to mourn with those who mourn? Simply develop a spirit of availability and sensitivity to those in your life and community who might be quietly grieving during the holidays. They (we) aren’t looking for anything special… an available you, will do just fine. If you have a posture of unavailability to a grieving friend, that only increases the sense of loss and sadness– instead, be available and let them know that you are available. Don’t fail to walk with the grieving simply because it’s uncomfortable– remember: the entire way of Jesus is uncomfortable.
Don’t think we want you to pretend that nothing is wrong.
We don’t. Often, when someone is grieving a loss we tend to avoid the issue, thinking that we’re helping them “get it off their minds”. Well, I have a newsflash for you: it’s always on our minds. When folks pretend that nothing is wrong and avoid the issue of loss, it actually has the opposite effect than what is intended. When everyone is ignoring the loss, our feelings of grief fail to be validated– and that can drive someone mad. Feel free to bring it up in conversation– we’re not going to be upset with you, we might even thank you for doing so.
Directly ask us how we’re doing.
In line with the previous point, sometimes we’re desperate for someone to ask us how we’re doing. And, I don’t mean a simple “how are you?” but a direct inquiry into how we’re managing our loss. A direct question gives us permission to talk about the loss and permission to talk about our feelings. People who are grieving, especially when it is an issue of extended grief, worry that they’re being a Debbie Downer and will often keep the issue to themselves unless directly asked. We know that our pain is making the holidays difficult for us, and don’t want to feel like we’re dumping it on you. However, when you directly ask we feel permission to be real and talk about how the loss is currently impacting us.
Please, don’t ask if you’re not ready to listen. You might be the first person who has had the courage to ask us how we are managing, and you might get a very long and emotional answer. The best friend a grieving person can have, is one who is willing to just sit and listen. Don’t even feel the need to respond– simply listening to us will be enough to make us feel like for a moment, we’re not isolated. Remember– those who are grieving can feel alone in a room full of people. However, when we have the opportunity to talk about our story and hurt, all of a sudden we feel a little less lonely.
PLEASE don’t use clichés with us, religious or otherwise.
If you have the courage to be available to a friend, have the courage to directly ask how their doing, and are prepared to listen, don’t ruin it by responding with some cliché or quoting a random Bible verse at us. We know you mean well, but this is hurtful. Our pain and grief can’t be assuaged by someone spouting off a few sentences at us. If I’m telling you about how painful it was to put a child’s stocking back in the box instead of hanging it by the chimney with care, and you respond with: “all things happen for good to them that love God”, just know that as I politely smile and nod, I am actually fantasizing about how good it would feel to punch you in the face.
Send an encouraging note.
If you live far away, send a card or e-mail to tell us that you’re thinking of us and realize the holidays must be difficult this year. Emails are great, but I feel as if we’ve lost the art and beauty of a letter that comes in the mail– write a short, encouraging note, throw a stamp on it, and drop it in the mail to us. It just might come at the perfect time and give us that encouraging boost we need to make it through a difficult day.
Stop by for a visit, and feel free to bring alcohol with you.
Live locally? It can be a big encouragement to someone if you just swing by to tell them that you’re thinking of them and wanted to see how they’re doing. When we’re overcome with grief we don’t often have the energy to reach out to people and need people to reach out to us. Just drop by to check in, and feel free to obey the Holy Scriptures by bringing alcohol with you (I’m sorry, but did you really think I’d write an article without saying something provocative?). For it is written:
“Give liquor to someone who is perishing, and wine to someone who is deeply depressed. Let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.” Prov 31:6-7
Remember: all we actually need or want from you, is to be a friend.
I fear that so many times, people grieve alone because those around them simply feel inadequate in reaching out. Please know, that you’re not– you’re exactly what we need: an available friend. You don’t need any special skills, any answers, and you don’t actually have to bring us free booze (but that is kind). All you need is to be an available version of you. That’s it. That’s all we need.
This Christmas season, I hope that your life is wonderful and that you are full of Christmas cheer. However, I would encourage you to stop and remember that this isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for everyone– for some of us, this is the most difficult time of the year. For some, this is the time when we most need your friendship and support.
That friendship, might be the best gift we receive for Christmas.
And so, the question becomes: who in your life simply needs an available version of you for Christmas?
Great post! We are linking to this great article on our site.Keep up the good writing.
When my brother died 30 years ago on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I knew that the holidays would be a difficult time, at least for a while, and they were, and have been, in part because of other losses in the intervening years. So, as someone who has vacillated of late between celebration and mourning within the same minute and who may be attempting to perfect the ability to do both at once – which may be a worthy endeavor – I thank you for your tender to-do list
Ben, have I missed something about your personal life? Whatever it is, I am sorry for your loss.
Thanks, Jon. We told part of our story in a post from July, and tell a bit more of it in my upcoming book. The post that will bring you up to speed is here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/forgiving-god/
So sorry, Ben
Ben – thanks so much for this post. It ought to be read by anyone who is involved in the ‘caring’ professions. It would, I am sure, replenish the reserves of compassion which can all too often run dry, especially at Christmas.
Your post and the comment from Jill Roper are a source of encouragement to us all – and very humbling. Thank you both for your openness and courage.
> “all things happen for good to them that love God”
Another variation, in a University Children’s Hospital, 10 years ago, almost to the day: “God did this to your child to get to you and speak to your heart.”
Oh yeah. My response I won’t repeat, but it does bring to mind now an old Christmas poem.
The Raven, OR, A Christmas Tale, Told by a School-boy to His Little Brothers and Sisters. (by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798)
I grieve with you this holiday season. I just came back from serving in Haiti as a midwife. I lost 5 babies while I was there. My husband and I have buried two children in our 35 years of marriage. People mean well but they say the stupidest things. I well remember a woman who saw me smile about six months after our year old son died. She said it was about time I smile. Really? Then there are those who say it was God’s will or the worst, a sympathy card that says God needed another angel so he brought our child to him to be his next angel. REALLY are you serious? I say one thing, I am so very sorry. I don’t ask people to call me for help if they need it since I know I didn’t have the energy to call anyone and ask for help either when our daughter died or when our son died. Our church has what is called a blue Christmas each year. A time for those who are struggling with being “happy” during the season to encourage and uplift them. Now that I have come back from Haiti I loathe how we do the Christmas season. I always love reading what you write. May those who love you the most surround you and your family with love this season.
Your covered sister 🙂
Great to hear from you, Jill! I was thinking of you the other day and was going to write a post called “Where Is My Covered Sister?”… wasn’t sure if I had lost you 🙂
And, thanks for sharing more of your story– I grieve with you this Christmas, too.
Thanks for this, Ben. A number of years ago, my father passed away a day before Thanksgiving. The whole holiday season was thrown into a tailspin, not only that year but for a couple of years after. It was 4 years after his death that I actually felt like celebrating. Remembering that the Holidays aren’t alway Happy for everyone is a true gift.
This is besides the point, but I love it when the Bible surprises me in a good way. What an awesome verse.
Thank you Benjamin. Your willingness to share your life and your words of truth, are appreciated. I wish you and your family God’s blessings and comfort. Be well.