It’s sometimes hard to face reality, especially when reality includes difficult, dark emotions we aren’t used to feeling. Grief often crashes upon our hearts in uncomfortable waves, seemingly out of nowhere. And the holidays, along with other major milestones in our deceased loved ones’ lives, draw to the surface those complex, messy thoughts and feelings related to our losses.
I remember the first year Thanksgiving was celebrated differently in my family. My great-grandmother had passed away only a few months before, and my mom and grandpa were too overwhelmed and burdened with their sorrow to even consider putting on a grand feast. Instead, they decided we’d make dinner reservations at a local restaurant, so that we could still enjoy each other’s company and a traditional Thanksgiving dinner without the added stress of making everything from scratch.
Our celebration was somber, but memorable. We all agreed that life just wouldn’t be the same without “Gigi,” but it was also important that we all allowed ourselves and each other the space we needed to feel the hurt and to share what we missed about her.
When we grieve, the nostalgia of Christmases past are but figments of our memories. We’re told by our culture to put on smiling faces, set aside our differences and come together without acknowledging the depth of the void we feel. But that’s not always easy to do. There are years when you’ll feel more like you’re having a “blue Christmas” than a white one.
The beauty of our Catholic faith is that we possess the understanding of the theology and gift of redemptive suffering. Even more, we know that death is not the punctuation at the end of our lives. Rather, we carry the hope that resurrection awaits each of us, especially those who are faithful to God and try their best to live virtuous lives.
We can’t know with certainty who is in heaven and who isn’t, and that can exacerbate the confusion and restlessness of our grief. But we have the hope of God’s incomprehensible mercy, and we also know the value and importance of praying for the dying and deceased.
Though celebrating Christmas may seem cumbersome this year, one way to ease yourself away from the dread is by focusing on Advent instead. (This is actually good for all of us, not just those who grieve.) Advent reminds us to slow down, rest and simplify — all of which are crucial to those whose grief is new and raw.
If there’s one thing grief does to us, it’s nudge us back to the basics of self-care — rest, eating nutritious foods, getting enough water to drink — and evaluating our priorities. When I posed a question on social media about how people coped with their grief during the holidays, many said they appreciated the time they had with their family members who were still with them.
Memorializing your deceased loved ones is also a way to incorporate their memories and legacies into your celebrations. Some told me they purchased a gift that reminded them of their loved one and donated it to charity. Others said they shared stories about their relatives whose famous dish was lovingly prepared for the holiday meal, all while gathered together in the kitchen, recreating the culinary masterpiece.
Sharing stories is the best way to stay focused on what is good about life. Talk about those who have died. Share with each other your favorite memories as you scroll through memory albums or scrap books. Talk about funny stories and laugh together. Impart some piece of advice that meant a lot to you from your loved one.
Finally, while grief certainly must be acknowledged and experienced in whatever ways unique to you, this is a time of joy, of unity, of peace. When we reframe our perspectives in such a way that we elevate our hearts, minds and souls to God in thanksgiving for every good gift, we will see the life we have left through the lens of gratitude.
Simple words of praise and thanksgiving, when sincerely offered, are often enough to buoy us out of darkness and depressive thoughts. God is always good, and He gives us everything we have. Joy comes in small doses when we grieve, but it is still present. God never abandons us, especially in our time of greatest need. Turn to Him, especially as you meditate on His birth as a helpless infant born in poverty, and speak to Him with an open heart ready to receive Him in love this Christmas.
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