Grief at Christmas
It’s great to be with you this morning and I’m thankful for the invitation to come and join you for fellowship and to have an opportunity to share with you. As Dot mentioned, I’m Allyson MacLeod and I’m the Pastor of Community Engagement and Teaching at Keswick Presbyterian Church just up the road.
I’m not sure what I was thinking when Dot asked me what I would be speaking on and I suggested this subject. It’s one that is very personal to me, that I continue to struggle with and that honestly, I don’t invite a lot of conversation around because generally people, even the best people, just don’t understand. And no one, myself included, wants to be a complete Debbie Downer at Christmas. But, that said, this morning, I do want to talk about something that we rarely hear about at this time of year: grief at Christmas. Christmas, of course, is a time of great joy and celebration. There are family gatherings and parties and you could fill every day of the week with some kind of Christmas festivity from craft shows and concerts to dinner parties and trips to the mall. In the background, beyond the Christmas noise and clutter, we do hear and are brought to an awareness that Christmas is hard for some families, particularly families who are struggling to make ends meet, especially with extra expectations to make their children’s wishes come true. And of course, that’s important and it is critical that the church look to those that are struggling and on the margins. But rarely do we hear about those who are struggling with grief at Christmas. Theirs is an often silent and invisible pain. And since this is a subject I know well, I thought I would bring it this morning and hopefully shed some light on what it means to celebrate Christmas while experiencing grief. And I’m going to start with my own story.
The call came just before 8 am on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is always a busy day at our house as we are not only preparing for our own Christmas celebrations but we are also preparing to lead the Christmas Eve services at our church, one of the highlights of the year. And this particular year, we were also packing to leave for the airport later Christmas Day to spend the holidays with our family, who are all in Nova Scotia. And because Christmas Eve is always a busy day, we weren’t particularly surprised that the phone should begin ringing so early. But I was surprised that it was my brother on the other end. He said that our Dad had been taken to the hospital by ambulance in the middle of the night and it that it wasn’t looking good.
Dad had cheated death once before. A few weeks before Kirk and I were married, Dad had suffered a heart attack during some routine surgery and a more serious heart attack a few days later. And then 6 days before our wedding, and I don’t think it had anything to do with my marrying Kirk but maybe, Dad suffered a cardiac arrest and we were told he wasn’t going to make it. But he did. His recovery took a long time and he never really regained the same level of health again. For 2 and a half years, we knew we were on borrowed time.
And then Kirk’s grandfather died. It was December 10th. Kirk and I were seminary students, living in Sutton and going to school in Toronto. We were in the middle of exams when we got the call to say that Pop had died. And even though we had plane tickets for Christmas Day, we boarded a train and made the trip to NS to be there for Pop’s funeral. We were only home a couple of days and despite the circumstances, saying goodbye seemed so much easier this time when we knew we would be home again, that we would see everyone again in less than two weeks.
And now it’s Christmas Eve morning. I called the hospital a few times throughout the day for updates. These were the days before cell phones (remember those days?) and so getting frequent updates was more challenging. Each update was the same. No change. In the meantime, Kirk continued to finish up the last minute details for the service at church and I packed the bags for our Christmas Day flight. I called the airline again and again to try to get an earlier flight but, of course, there were no available seats on Christmas Eve with planes packed with those last minute travellers trying to get home before Christmas.
And then, one last call before heading over to the church to open the doors and to begin our evening of celebration. And my mum said, It’s over. Dad died just a few minutes ago. What happened next is kind of blurry. Kirk had to leave to lead the service. In a brief moment of clarity, I took down our Christmas tree and packed away all of our decorations. Somehow I knew that I wouldn’t be able to face this by the time we arrived back home. And then I went upstairs and repacked my suitcase with a funeral in mind.
Later that evening we stopped in to see close friends who asked us to drop by. I know now, that was a mistake. They were in the middle of the joy and excitement of a family on Christmas Eve. That’s not where I was nor where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to bring them down but to sit and pretend that all was well was disingenuous, most of all, to myself. At 11 o’clock we went to the Anglican Church in Sutton – they were holding a midnight service. It was dark and quiet. We slipped into a pew close to the back. The service was muted; peaceful and reflective – no hype, no glitz, just simple worship. In the quiet, tears made tracks down my cheeks. I knew God was close there in the dark.
There’s something completely incongruent with experiencing death at Christmas. After all, Christmas is about celebrating a birth, the joy of new life in our midst. Everything about Christmas appears to exude this joy: décor, the lights, the music, the pretty wrapping paper, the presents, the parties, parades, concerts. Even the funeral home was decorated for Christmas. The muzak in the background during the visitation was Christmas carols. The reminders are everywhere. Christmas is already a highly emotional time. There are expectations for what should happen, for how you should feel. And so many of our Christmas celebrations are nostalgic to begin with: thinking about Christmasses gone by, telling stories about a favorite memory, hanging ornaments from years past, handing down favorite recipes. So experiencing grief during this time can feel a bit like vertigo, like your world has been flipped upside down.
Activity – I’ve placed some stars on each table and I’d like each of you to choose a star and a pen. On one point of the star I want you to write just a couple of words that represent a favorite Christmas memory. (No one else is going to read these – these words are just a signal – a reminder for you of the memory). On the next point of the star, I want you to write the title of a favorite Christmas song – one you love to sing during the Christmas season. On the next point, I want you to write a couple of words that represent a favorite Christmas tradition. On the next point, write a word that represents a favorite Christmas place – if it is home, is it your home, the home of your parents or grandparents, the home of one of your children, brother or sister? Or maybe you like to be on a beach in a warm place for Christmas. And on the final point, write a favorite food that you always enjoy during this season. When you have written something on each point, in the center of the star, write the name of one person you really love to be with at Christmas. After you have written that name, carefully try to tear out the name of that person. Is your star mangled? Looking kind of beat up? Imagine what Christmas would look like for you, if that person died during the Christmas season. Suddenly, your Christmas celebrations have a huge hole in the center. Their loss touches every part of your Christmas. Your star’s capacity to shine is diminished significantly. Everything seems a little darker. Now you are looking at Christmas through the lens of grief and it can color the way you think about special memory, special song, special place, special tradition, special person.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that when you lose someone you love at Christmas that Christmas gets swallowed up completely by grief and that we no longer experience the Joy. Of course, we experience Joy. In fact, we are looking forward to joy but we also aware that Christmas has become something we can dread as well – and that’s not something we often admit. We are looking for joy– it’s just that joy and sadness are often intermingled and we can’t always anticipate where grief will pop up. I might be baking Christmas cookies or walking through the mall, humming along to a Christmas carol and suddenly the tears are streaming down my face without any warning. All these years later. Two weeks ago, during that first snowfall, my daughter and I decided to get an early jump on our Christmas shopping. And I was so looking forward to the time together. But after a couple of hours of feeling the all too familiar lump in my throat created by the thing I was looking forward to – time together and the quick flashback of the memory of enjoying similar time with Dad – my daughter knew that look on my face and suggested we go home. She said, “Let’s try again another day when we can both enjoy it.”
What I really want to do this morning is to make you alert and aware to those who are struggling with grief at Christmas. The grief I have been speaking about is particular to those who have lost someone they love during Christmas. It comes with it’s own set of unique challenges. But, of course, we are not the only ones who are experiencing grief at Christmas. The season can also be particularly difficult for those who have experienced a significant loss at some point through the year and this will be there first Christmas without that person. That grief too can bring fear and dread, sadness, and loneliness and longing. And, of course, depression is often a companion of grief. And at the time of year when it is already cold and dark, it can be hard to let our hearts be light.
So I want to first to share some thoughts for those of us who are experiencing grief at Christmas: whether someone you love has died at Christmas or you have experienced the death of someone you love throughout the year and this is your first Christmas without them.
- It’s okay to feel sad – don’t feel ashamed. Don’t try to shove it down. Don’t feel bad about feeling sad. You have suffered a great loss. It would be strange not to feel that loss.
- It’s okay to feel happy – to laugh and experience joy. You aren’t betraying the one who has died by experiencing joy.
- Lower your expectations both of yourself and of Christmas. Expectations are trouble at the best of times and they can be crushing during hard times. Christmas doesn’t have to be “perfect”, whatever that means, to be meaningful.
- Find quiet space to rest and to retreat when you need a few moments alone. But don’t hide out there. Rejoin your family and friends when you are feeling ready.
- Be honest – communicate what you need and how you are feeling.
- Don’t fake it. Everyone can tell and it just makes you bitter.
- Remember that others around you may be grieving too. Be aware that their experience of grief may look differently than yours.
- Make a list and check it twice. Christmas is a busy season with lots of coming and going. Keeping a list can help take the pressure off trying to remember through the fog of grief.
- Don’t over commit. Leave time and space on your calendar for rest and for grace and for God.
- And lastly, don’t let grief consume you. If you feel overwhelmed or like you are drowning in it, if you don’t recognize yourself anymore, reach out. Get help. There is no shame in asking for help.
And then, for those of you who might be supporting someone through grief, here’s what we want you to know:
- Invite, but don’t make plans for us. Don’t tell us what to do. We want to be included and would love to come, but at the last minute we might be experiencing a hard time. Please understand and don’t guilt.
- Don’t avoid us – no one wants to say the wrong thing and no one really knows what the right thing to is to say. Keep it short and simple but don’t say nothing.
- Be a good listener without giving advice or like you have to make it better. You can’t.
- This one is really, really hard for Christians to hear but hear me when I say: Please don’t try to pretty grief up in religious platitudes. Don’t tell us that it’s a blessing – even if it is. Or they are in a better place or God will never give you more than you can handle (that’s not even what that verse means) or it was the Lord’s will. None of those are comforting.
- Instead, show care in practical ways. Offer to accompany your friend or family member to a concert or to the mall, offer to help with decorations, offer to look after their kids if they need a break or offer to help clean the house and get it ready for company coming. Bring them a tea or a coffee and just sit with them quietly.
- Respect our choices. We aren’t trying to ruin the day – we are trying so hard not to ruin the day and we really don’t want to ruin yours. We are just trying to get through it as best we can.
- Don’t use the suggestions that I have made to those who are experiencing grief against them – they are meant to be helps from one beggar telling another where she found bread. They aren’t meant to be coercive.
And finally, let me end with this. The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Christmas is a season of hope. Hope that comes in the midst of despair, suffering, longing. Our God understands grief. Job talks about grief. The Psalms express grief. The prophets grieve. Jesus wept. We know it as the shortest verse in the Bible but perhaps it is also the most poignant. Our God cries over the death of a friend. Grief is the single subject of the entire book of Lamentations. Israel’s grief and God’s. But in the midst of grief there is a word of hope. Lamentations 3:19-30. In the Message we find:
I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:
God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
He’s all I’ve got left.
God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits,
to the woman who diligently seeks.
It’s a good thing to quietly hope,
quietly hope for help from God.
It’s a good thing when you’re young
to stick it out through the hard times.
When life is heavy and hard to take,
go off by yourself. Enter the silence.
Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions:
Wait for hope to appear.
At Christmas, even in the midst of grief and always in spite of it, hope is born. His name is Jesus, Immanuel. God with us.
© Allyson MacLeod