“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” proclaims a popular Christmas song. While that is often true, many people find the holidays to be stressful and sad due to significant losses they have experienced. It is sometimes hard to know what to do with feelings of grief when the prevailing sentiment of the season is joy and jolliness.
In an attempt to be sensitive to people grieving over the holidays, many churches and hospitals are offering “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services. These services are times to acknowledge that many enter the Christmas season with deep pain. A recent widow spoke of how strangers at a Blue Christmas service ended up consoling one another and offering hugs “because they’re going through the same agony that you are”. Her daughter added, “Otherwise, we’d probably all try to go through the holiday putting this aside, thinking there’s something wrong with us.”
The phenomenon of intense sadness during the holidays is well known. Grief counselors point to a reaction known as “sudden temporary upsurges or grief”, when a person’s coping mechanisms are overcome because of some trigger. Facing a holiday without a cherished loved one, or with a person with a serious illness, can be one of those triggers.
Some local churches in our area are offering Blue Christmas services, close to the winter solstice when the days are their longest and darkest. These include:
*Edmonds United Methodist Church, Dec. 20, 7:30 PM
*Trinity Episcopal, Everett, Dec. 21, 7 PM
*Cedar Cross United Methodist Church, Dec. 21, 7 PM
If you have a relative or friend who may be struggling this season, consider some of these tips:
- Create an accepting atmosphere in which it is okay to have a range of feelings expressed. Try not to force joy on a person struggling with sadness.
- Consider honoring the missing loved one in a special way during the holiday season. One daughter told of placing a lighted candle on the mantle in honor of her father, who died in December, and how this simple act brought comfort to the family. Many people choose to highlight a Christmas story, recipe, or tradition brought to the family by the missing relative.
- Simplify your expectations for the grieving person’s participation in Christmas activities.
- Affirm the many ways that the Christmas story involves loss. Many pastors point out that an unexpected pregnancy, a census trip to Bethlehem, the lack of lodging for Mary and Joseph, the flight into Egypt, and the murderous intent of King Herod all represented opportunities to place times of crisis into God’s hands.
- Listen, but don’t feel the need to “fix” their feelings.
- Be open to adapting your traditions to acknowledge new realities. One family in Snohomish took their family on a cruise over the holidays last year, because the only way they could approach the holidays was to avoid all of their previous traditions in light of a loss that was still raw. This year, with their grief symptoms subdued, they are gradually returning to a more typical celebration.
- Reach out to others. A woman related the story of her profound sadness last Christmas over the death of her mother. The special Christmas package containing her mother’s Christmas cookies would not be coming for the first time. On the day of the Blue Christmas service at her church, she suddenly got the inspiration to bake her mother’s favorite cookies and share them at the reception. This act of sharing was a moment of real joy, even in the midst of a sorrowful time.