One Christmas over a decade ago I learned firsthand how painful the holiday can be for those who are mourning.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” The loudspeaker blared the joyful lyrics of the familiar song that snowy Christmas Eve afternoon.
Everywhere I looked, people were searching for last-minute gift purchases, holiday baking ingredients, or that one final string of twinkle lights that would make their Christmas downright Norman Rockwell perfect.
As I stood in line paying for the ingredients for my assigned cheesy potato casserole for our family gathering, a lump formed in my throat. Soon my lips quivered, and hot tears fell onto my wind-chapped cheeks.
How could everyone be so happy? Why was the world going on as if nothing had happened? My friend Julie had died the night before, leaving behind a husband and eight children who needed her. Didn’t anyone care?
I wanted to scream. I wanted the holidays to be canceled that year. There was no cheer in me, and I thought the rest of the world should follow suit and just “humbug” the whole celebration.
Although our hearts were heavy, our family tried to make the most of Christmas, especially for our children, who were sad about their friends’ mother’s death. Over the next few months, my husband and I carried on with our normal life and tried to help our widowed friend as best we could.
Several in our circle of friends made meals on a weekly basis. A college girl offered to clean their home. One of Julie’s sons joined our homeschool for kindergarten a few days each week. Although we still experienced great heartache knowing our friend wasn’t coming back, lightening her husband’s load and being there for the children made us feel we were fulfilling the mission God had for us.
Ever since that year, our family has become more aware of the fact that for many, Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t the most wonderful times of the year. Loneliness looms. Depressions darken. While scores of us delight in the season, drinking in the sights, sounds, and smells, others are numb from pain.
A neighbor of mine had a good perspective on helping those who hurt. She once told me, “The holidays are an excuse for making someone’s life better.” She was right! There are people waiting to be encouraged and included during the holidays. If only we would cease our own sometimes self-focused hustle and bustle long enough to see!
After that sad season in our family’s life, we’ve made it our mission to reach out at the holidays instead of playing the commercialized “gimmee game.” Thanksgiving and Christmas are not about getting. The very essence of both is giving.
When our family has been intentional about being Jesus’ hands and feet at the holidays, he has allowed us to brighten the lives of many. We get to show his love and character expressed in Psalm 68:5–6: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.”
Others are welcomed at our table. We sing Christmas carols to shut-ins, decorate homes and address Christmas cards for widows, shop for the needy, bake for the brokenhearted, and often include the lonely in our normal holiday activities as if they were part of our family. Because really, they are.
Here are some points about grief to keep in mind as you interact with those who are sick at heart:
G—Give them space. Don’t expect them to bounce right back after a few weeks and act like their old selves. The grief process takes a long time, and people will continue to miss a loved one until the day they die. Be consistent in reaching out to them, including them, and showing them love. Do not be offended if they don’t consistently act like their old selves. They need a little space and a lot of time.
R—Remember their loved one out loud. Don’t be afraid to speak of the one who has passed away or their loved one who is suffering from a disease. It usually makes it worse when no one will mention the name of the deceased. When you feel it is appropriate, talk about their loved one, mentioning a happy memory or funny story or one of their character qualities. Keep their memory alive in your conversations. A friend who lost his son in the Iraq war once told me, “Don’t be afraid to speak his name. Speaking his name doesn’t remind me that my son died. I know he died. Speaking his name reminds me that you remember that he lived.”
I—Invite them along. Even though the grieving need space, they still need to know that you want to include them in your activities. Make it a point to invite them out to lunch or to take in a movie or show. Ask them to take in a sporting event or a concert. Don’t be offended if they aren’t up to going. Just keep inviting them, so they know you care.
E—Etch important dates on your calendar. Holidays and other special dates are especially hard the first few years—Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s or Father’s Day. Make plans to reach out to the grieving on these difficult occasions. Did your friends lose their son in his senior year of high school? Make sure to send a thoughtful card during graduation time in the spring, letting them know you are praying for them. Did your neighbor lose her husband to a heart attack? Find out their wedding anniversary and offer to take your neighbor out for coffee or lunch. One of my favorite ideas was when my young boys took flowers to a sweet older widow we called Grandma Alma on what would have been her wedding anniversary. We told her that since Grandpa Don was busy in heaven, he had us deliver the love that day.
F—Frame a favorite picture. Print a photo of the person and their loved one who is now gone. It is a simple gift but one that will be appreciated. When my sister-in-law passed away, my friend Mandy purchased a small Christmas ornament that framed a picture of my sister-in-law. Each Christmas when we hang it on the tree, I fondly remember not only my relative but my thoughtful friend.
This year, use the holidays as an excuse to better the life of someone who is grieving and shine the light of Christ as you do.
Join Karen for her 12th Annual 12 Days of Christmas Giveaways on her blog. Today she has a special guest who knows all too well about grieving at the holidays and hopes that her words will encourage you!