Christmas Mourning: Surviving the Holidays

The time for mourning does not take a break for the holidays–not even Christmas.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Mourning at Christmas is hard.

It was first time our family gathered together since I lost my mother. I studied the happy faces greeting one another. They felt foreign. I was the oldest of two children my parents adopted at infancy. Without her there, I felt as if I had lost the link to the only family I had ever known. As I sank into a thoughtful wave of grief, my daughter sensed my sadness and sat down beside me. In her bubbly, vivacious way she tried to cheer me up.

“Smile mom. Come on. Go visit.” She urged with a nudge.

To be honest, it felt like a bit of an insult. I tried to explain. “This is the first time together since Grandma died. I miss her. I really don’t feel like smiling.”

Her shoulders dropped as her expression went from cheerful to a cool degree of irritation.

“Mom. Does every family event have to be ruined by death?”

Marred by Grief

It did. And it certainly had for several years. And yet, her words took me back a bit. Not only at the fact that she was accurate—but by her utter lack of understanding. Couldn’t she see how death had ripped a hole in my very existence? Holidays notwithstanding.

Death, had in fact, clouded every family event. Not just in the eight months leading to that particular day. Indeed, death had all but destroyed the joy in our family events for several years.

At least, it did for me.

June 3rd, 2008 bore the day we lost our youngest, 13 year old son, Danny. From that day on, some holidays lost all meaning, others just amplified the emptiness. I couldn’t bear taking family pictures, because all I could see, was who was not there.

Perhaps you’ve been told it’s “not healthy” to allow death to paint sadness and grief over celebrations.

I disagree.

Our “pull yourself up” and “wash your face” culture doesn’t honor the grieving process. Perhaps because it makes others feel uncomfortable. Too often we are expected to heal on someone else’s time frame. So instead of embracing the grief, we paint on a smile and try to pretend that we are strong–for everyone else.

Mourning at Christmas

My first Christmas without Danny, we still had children in the house. When I finally mustered up the strength to put up the tree decorate, I was pretty pleased with myself.

“There. Does it feel like Christmas now?” I asked my teenage son.

“It feels like a month before Christmas. Not the week of Christmas.”

My heart sank. All I really wanted to do is pretend it wasn’t Christmas at all. Again, it was extremely hard to focus on what was there, when all I could see, was who wasn’t.

Looking back, the mistake I made was trying to make Christmas the same as it had always been. When, in reality, it just punctuated the loss and felt empty. Life had changed. Trying to make everything the same, can’t make it the same.

When your life is shattered by an unthinkable loss, whether it is a parent, child, or spouse, it changes how you see the world around you. If you let it, and listen to it, sorrow will carve away the insignificant, and help you see what is truly worth living for.

In order to do that, you can’t push grief aside, even in the holiday season.

The First Two Years Are Hardest

You can’t soften grief, ignore it, or push it away. Not for yourself, or for someone else. At times you don’t know if you will survive the first years.

At Christmas, we are expected to be joyful, thankful, and hospitable. When we are incapable of these emotions it adds a layer of guilt to our grief. We don’t want to ruin the holiday fun for others.

So, we have a choice to make. Paint on a smile, stuff down the tears, and pretend. Or step back and look at each holiday for what it is— and how you can survive the day while still being true to this season of mourning.

Past generations understood this. However, it is not the way it is today. American culture promotes living for Friday, values abundance and savory sweets. It runs from the bitterness of loss. In doing so, it guides us away from the lessons it holds for us.

A House of Mourning

It’s written in Ecclesiastes 7:2, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”

It is not your responsibility to transform your “house of mourning” to a “house of feasting.” Not only is it unjust for you, but it does no service to those around you. It does not allow the living to take to heart the reality that death touches us all. The truth is, this loss, changed your life. It’s okay to let it change your celebrations.

Grief is exhausting. Focus only on the traditions that are important, and bring comfort and joy to you and those closest to you. It’s okay to pick and choose what you will or will not do. The holidays are filled with events and obligations. Choose only the most meaningful for this year.

It’s important to acknowledge that life has changed and create a new tradition to commemorate, and honor that change.

If death has cast its shadow over your home, don’t allow the opinions or timelines of others to make you feel guilty for not turning your house of mourning into a house of feasting before its due season. God draws near to the broken hearted, fall into His embrace and peace.

Close up of a young, pensive Asian woman listening to someone talking to her on her phone

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