Not so merry and bright: Dealing with grief during the holidays

Nov 29, 2018 7:00:00 AM / by Mary Lindberg

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As ministry leaders we typically hustle around during December, arranging the endless details of special worship services and enlisting volunteers for service projects. Inevitably, though, another aspect of our Advent ministry reveals itself – acknowledging those in our congregations who are facing grief. Holiday times certainly highlight the glaring difference between enduring loss and feeling merry and bright.

In the past few years, some churches have begun to offer special December gatherings (sometimes called Blue Christmas) that are designed to help grieving church members find comfort and support one another during the holiday season. The gatherings often end up being treasured by church leaders, because they help us return to the deep, tender Advent feelings of holiness and waiting. Blue Christmas events also remind us of the universality of grief. At some point in our lives, each of us will have faced the sting of missing a loved one.

In addition to bringing our grieving members together during Advent for prayer, support, and maybe even tea, we can offer four concrete ways to experience Advent and Christmas in new ways. (These four ideas could also be used at a Blue Christmas gathering!) 

Read together

While the story of Jesus’ birth is a story of great joy, strands of grief run through the account. The society into which Jesus was born grieved for their safety and livelihood – children perished, citizens starved, and freedom eluded. 

No doubt Mary and Joseph also grieved the opportunity to give birth without a dangerous trip, and had to swallow hard at the conditions into which their son was born. Shepherds and angels reminded Jesus’s parents that their baby belonged to the world, and they would have to let go and share him. 

In the church, as we await Jesus’s entry into the world, our scripture lessons remind us that messiahs were not beloved of the powers that be, and tragedy and loss await Jesus offstage. Even as we celebrate the hope of new life, we steel our hearts for the possibility of despair and recognize that old life and new life are always bookends of our faith journeys. 

Write meaningful notes

Grief work doesn’t happen in a straight line; instead it’s more like a labyrinth of sadness and okayness that circles around for a long time. Writing provides a powerful tool to help us express and learn from our many feelings and phases of grief.

During the holiday season, write a special Christmas card and letter to the one we’ve lost. Telling that person “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” of how we feel helps us uncover precious memories, name exactly what we miss, and begin to discern a little of how we’ve changed during this experience.   

Sing from the heart 

Secular Christmas music may be simply too sentimental for years when we’re hurting. But Christmas carols hold words of resonance and comfort that give voice to our grief. (Leave it to the poets – they can name what we feel inside.) For instance, The First Noel includes this line – on a cold winter’s night that was so deep – and reminds us that Jesus came, and comes, during our most tender and raw need.

The fourth verse of Away in a Manger provides a prayer for children of all ages, especially when we feel alone and isolated in our pain – be near me Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay, close by me forever and love me I pray. 

Singing these lines to ourselves at random times during December can act like a lullaby to quiet our deepest fears during moments of grief. 

Share with others

It’s a balancing act – taking care of ourselves during the fatigue that can descend at times of grief and remembering that simple acts of kindness can give us respite from our deepest lethargy. Inspired by the legend of the little shepherd boy who had only his heart to share with baby Jesus, we can share something small each day during the season of Advent.

What to share?

  • A note and Psalm verse with someone else who is grieving. (This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life. Psalm 119:50)
  • Our loved one’s favorite holiday cookies with our grandchild
  • A walk with a neighbor
  • A smile of understanding with a weary clerk or mail carrier

  

During Advent we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah proclaim, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2)

In our congregations reside many members who are walking in the darkness of grief and loss. They understand the particular bittersweetness of sad hearts during a joyful season and hold on to the hope of new life in Christ. Together with them this December, we can seek a deeper brand of holiday joy – that God creates and we don’t have to manufacture.

 

Interested in learning more about dealing with tough topics like grief during the holiday season? Check out Fortress Press' Living with Hope series for resources to support ministry leaders and their congregations.

Topics: Events and Holidays

Mary Lindberg

Written by Mary Lindberg

Pastor Mary C. Lindberg works as a chaplain at Columbia Lutheran Home in Seattle, Washington. She and her husband have two grown daughters. Mary is also the author of Jobs Lost, Faith Found in the Living with Hope series from Fortress Press.

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