Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
How great our joy! Joy, joy joy!
Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies!
I could go on, of course. We are surrounded by messages of and wishes for joy at Christmas. We are celebrating the world-changing birth of a Savior – why should we not be joyful?
Of course, Christmas is not always a time of joy. Perhaps this Christmas is the last to be spent with a spouse, a parent, or a dear friend, unless there is a medical miracle. Perhaps this is the Christmas that was supposed to be spent with a newborn child whose life was tragically cut short. Perhaps this is the Christmas that long-simmering family tensions finally boiled over and the diminished crowd for Christmas dinner is a reminder of the still-raw sores that have had no time to heal. Perhaps Christmas dinner is spent alone – for the first time or the twentieth – and the loneliness falls in unexpected times and places.Even as Christmas is a time of heightened joy and excitement, the moments of grief, pain, and sadness can feel all the more powerful.
So how do we navigate grief at Christmas?
First, some thoughts for those of us experiencing grief at Christmas:
- Expect the unexpected. Some grief hits us in ways we would expect – the anniversary of a loved one’s death, for instance. We consciously or unconsciously prepare ourselves for such grief. Christmas, though, full of family traditions and the unique rhythms of the season, may hit us with a wave of sadness at unexpected times. As we encounter such grief, it can be helpful to simply give ourselves time and space to process through such unexpected grief.
Be willing to be sad. It’s okay to stand silently while a congregation sings “How great our joy!” on all sides. Sometimes, we need the community to sing on our behalf the words we can’t bring ourselves to say. The more we are willing to be honest and vulnerable about our grief at Christmas, the more likely we are to find others being honest and vulnerable in return. Putting on a thin veneer of happiness “for the sake of everyone else” does not build the community of believers – rather, it takes away from the opportunity for real, honest community.
For those of us supporting those who are grieving at Christmas:
- Allow space for grief. Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean everyone needs to be happy. Phrases like “Cheer up!” or “You can get through it” may be meant to be helpful but can cause far more damage than we realize. Sometimes the better thing to say is, “It’s okay to be sad.” Or, even better, just offer a hug. Just because someone is sad does not mean that they are being a “buzzkill” or “dragging the whole room down.” Such discomfort with grief has less to do with the person who is grieving than it does with the person who is uncomfortable with it.
Recognize that grief comes in many forms. Some grief is seen as more “culturally acceptable” than others. We understand the grief someone feels at the loss of a loved one. We may be less understanding of the grief of a spouse who is secretly mourning a recent breakdown of trust in their marriage or the grief of a couple who only recently received news of a miscarriage. Just because we don’t know why someone is sad during the holidays doesn’t mean that their grief is unimportant or unnecessary. At its heart, this is about being grace-filled in our interactions with one another, recognizing that we don’t know everything that is going on in someone’s heart or life and yet seeking to show the love of Christ as best we can.
I suspect that one piece of the puzzle may actually be contained in those songs about joy: the joy of Christmas is far bigger than any of us as individuals. The joy of Christmas is about the cosmic, world-changing Good News that Christ the Savior is born. This is not just good news for each one of us on our own but for the whole human race – indeed, for the whole of creation.
Some days, it’s easy to see how that joy extends into our individual lives and to feel how God transforms our hearts to be filled with the joy of our salvation. At other times, that individual joy may be less apparent, less connected to our lived experience from day to day. At times like these, I am grateful for the body of Christ. As a body we not only encourage one another, but we also carry one another. We sing the words that our brothers and sisters cannot. On those days when we simply cannot see the joy of Christmas, we entrust ourselves to the community of believers who can, knowing that someday, perhaps, we will do the same for someone else.
Navigating grief at Christmas is rarely easy, regardless of which side of the experience of grief we are on. At its heart, the key to navigating grief at Christmas is grace. Showing grace to others and showing grace to ourselves. As we abound in such grace as a community, we find the path through holiday-season grief to be a little clearer.