Focus on the Family

When Your Family's Lost a Loved One: Handling the Holidays

by Nancy Guthrie

"Happy Thanksgiving!"

"Merry Christmas!"

"Happy New Year!"

As the end of the year approaches, everywhere we turn someone is telling us we should be happy.

But for families who've recently lost someone they love, the holidays can seem more like something to survive than to enjoy. The traditions and events that can add so much joy and meaning to the season are punctuated with painful, repeated reminders of our loss. Many of us wish we could find a quiet place to hide until Jan. 2.

Since we likely can't hide away, it makes sense to have a strategy as we approach the holiday season. We need a plan that will help us get through what can be a very difficult time of year.

Our daughter, Hope, was born on a Monday before Thanksgiving. I thought we'd always be celebrating her birthday around that holiday. In a sense we do – but of course it's not the way I thought it would be.

When that first Thanksgiving rolled around six months after Hope died, I was in the lowest part of my grief. I couldn't bear to do a big family thing, fearing that perhaps no one would say her name or that I wouldn't have space to just be sad. But we didn't want to stay home in our quiet house and feel the gloom closing in, either.

We felt we needed to do something completely different, make a new memory. So we drove to Asheville, N.C., stayed in a bed-and-breakfast, visited the Biltmore mansion and went to the movies.

We did have some fun, though our sadness came along for the ride. Still, we did our best to pursue joy and celebrate life together in new and different ways. The change of scenery lightened our load of sorrow.

Shortly before making the trip, I went by a friend's house. She was one of those people who never seemed to really "get" our loss, and seemed to want me to hurry back to being happy. When I told her about our plans, she said, "That should be fun!" The look she gave me said I was supposed to agree wholeheartedly with her.

"Yes, it should," I said.

I didn't know how to explain that when you've lost a member of your family, even the best of times are painfully incomplete. Someone is missing. Even the best days, the happiest events, are tinged with sadness.

Holidays raise hard questions for grieving families. How do you get a Christmas tree without Dad, when he always picked out the best one? How does a child find a gift for Dad without Mom there to help? How does a wife get through New Year's Eve with no one to kiss at the stroke of midnight?

There are no simple answers, no easy ways to get through these important, memory-laden days. But there are a few things that can help bring back some joy amid the sadness.

Start a New Tradition

When you're grieving the loss of someone who isn't at the table, traditional holiday family events can be especially hard. Perhaps this is the year to do something different.

by Nancy Guthrie

My parents love to have all their kids at their house for holidays, but they're supportive and flexible and have never laid a guilt trip on any of us when we've made other plans.

Many of my friends don't have it so good. They would never think of not meeting their family's holiday expectations. They often find themselves building their plans around those expectations rather than around what's best for their immediate family.

When you're grieving the loss of someone who isn't at the table, it can be especially hard to move through traditional holiday family events. Perhaps this is the year to break with tradition, do something different, make a new memory.

Every family has holiday assumptions; some see them as rigid rules that can't be broken. But part of taking care of your family right now may mean not making the expected trip, not participating in the usual rituals, not showing up at the big dinner. That's OK.

Besides crossing things off your list that you don't want to do this year, perhaps there are some new things you want to try – particularly things that will honor the memory of the one you've lost.

For example, do you want to give a gift to someone who played an important role in your loved one's life? Do you want to buy a tree you can plant in the yard as an ongoing reminder of hope and healing in the years to come? Do you want to make a donation to a charity or ministry in your loved one's honor?


Surround Yourself With Comfort

This may be the holiday season to do what brings you comfort. Choose to be around people you can count on to understand your sorrow, people who offer the support you need to get through the season.

by Nancy Guthrie

When we're grieving, we quickly find out who's willing to share our sorrow and give us time to be sad. We also discover who's uncomfortable with our tears, wanting us to "get over it."

Certain relatives or friends you see during the holidays may add to your pain with too many words or by never talking about your family's loss. While you don't want your relationships to be forever ruled by your sensitivity, for a little while you may need to avoid those who add to your hurt.

This may be the holiday season to do what brings you comfort. So if being with your family and continuing tradition brings the soothing you need, do it. But if your extended family is insensitive to your grief, you may choose this year to be around people you can count on to understand your sorrow, people who offer the emotional and spiritual support you need to get through the season.

Invite someone over who helps you remember your loved one. Or slip away occasionally from the family reunion to call someone who supports you.

Maybe you need to communicate clearly to your extended family what will bring you comfort. You can't expect them to know.

If you long to hear your loved one's name, explain that you look forward to a time of talking together about him. Or set the tone by bringing up her name yourself. You'll break the ice for everyone else who's thinking of your loved one – but isn't sure whether saying his name will make you feel better or add to your sadness.

Expect to Feel Sad, But Be Open to Joy

Sharing your loss and honoring your loved one through holiday communication might be the perfect way to bring some joy back into the season.

by Nancy Guthrie

Holiday traditions are meant to add joy and meaning. If they only seem like another heavy burden this year, leave the decorations packed up. Don't send out the cards. If the weight of grief makes travel harder this year, perhaps you don't need to make the trip.

On the other hand, adding cheer to your usual surroundings – or getting away from them – might feel really good. There may be some tears as you and your family put the ornaments on the tree, but those tears may help to release some of your disappointment over the fact that the person you love is not here this year.

You may not relish the work of getting out a family Christmas card – especially taking a group photo with someone glaringly missing. But sharing your loss and honoring your loved one through holiday communication might be the perfect way to bring some joy back into the season.

When I remember that first Christmas after Hope died, I picture myself standing at the sink preparing Christmas dinner – with tears running down my face. The void was enormous. Tears were the only way to release the pain I felt.

There's no avoiding sadness when our hearts are broken, but neither is there a complete absence of joy. Sometimes I think we're afraid to feel joy when we're grieving; it can feel like a betrayal to be happy. Or we fear that if we're too happy, those around us will think we're officially "over it" and our sorrow will no longer be tolerated.

Experiencing sorrow doesn't eliminate joy. In fact, I've come to think that sorrow actually increases our capacity for joy. As our lows are lower, our highs are higher. Deep sorrow expands our ability to feel all emotions deeply.

Prepare Yourself for Healing in the Coming Year

While your family's holiday seasons likely will be sprinkled with occasional pain, these times can also be an opportunity to discover God in brand new ways.

by Nancy Guthrie

My worst New Year's Eve was the one when we had our daughter, Hope.

Our small group was at our house, celebrating the occasion. I found I had to slip away to my bedroom. I  pulled the covers over my head, holding Hope in my arms, wanting to wish away the entrance of another year.

Everyone on the other side of the house was wishing each other, "Happy New Year!" I knew the coming year was going to be the saddest of my life – the year I would have to bury my daughter.

When the next New Year's Eve came around, it felt painful once again. I was leaving behind the year in which I had known Hope. The milestone of the new year was a reminder that time was moving on, taking me further away from her.

But a new year is a new beginning. And God is a God of new beginnings. He is at work in us in each new year, healing and renewing and remaking. And He works through His Word.

While your family's holiday seasons likely will be sprinkled with occasional pain, these times can also be an opportunity to discover God in ways that you might not have been hungry for without the hurt of losing someone.

Your family may not have had a habit of reading the Bible together or praying together before your loss. Perhaps the holiday season will give you the opportunity to read God's Word as a family, using an Advent guide or devotional as Christmas approaches.

And you don't have to stop there. Perhaps the new year will prompt a resolution to begin setting aside time to allow God to speak into your lives, into your sorrow and questions. You might consider using a daily devotional such as The One Year Book of Hope, which I wrote specifically to help grieving people get into God's Word. I regularly hear from couples who read it together, and even long-distance relatives who read it together each day over the phone.

The practice of reading and talking about God's Word as a family is hard to get going – and even harder to keep going. But so much has changed in your household, this season could be the right time to start.

You don't have to hide during this holiday season, waiting for it to pass. You can choose to take care of yourself and prepare yourself for healing in the coming year.

Your family can enter into the Nativity with your sorrow and need and discover in a new way why the angel proclaimed, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10).

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