Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas ~ Bitter and Sweet?

It’s sad to say, but loss and grief will be part of many people’s holiday celebrations this year. Holidays are supposed to be happy and fun, but grieving the absence of a loved one can turn this entire season into a painful time that blocks out happy memories of past Christmases. Certainly, the holidays will never again be exactly the same for you. With the death of a loved one, things change. That doesn’t mean, however, you’ll never be able to join in the celebration again or experience laughter and good times during the holidays. If you’re on a journey of mourning and healing, I recommend the book The Empty Chair by Psychologist Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Is there one less place setting at your Christmas table this year – one less chair where he or she always sat? Holidays usually lift us above the humdrum of life to renew and revive us, but the holiday after a loss of a loved one can have the opposite effect. Grief is tough enough to handle, but when Christmas comes it can be even more difficult. Zonnebelt-Smeenge understands; she’s been there.

She says, “Full resolution of grief is possible through a combination of time and intentional grief work.” Both of my parents died in the last five years, and I realize I didn’t come out of that grief and find my old self again; I came out a different person. Where do you find yourself in the grief process? You may accept the loss but feel as frozen inside as the ground outside. Some people cry when they look at their gift list or when they set one less place at the table. Your holiday spirit can be broken by death so that nothing sparkles but the tears. Others choose not to mention their pain or their loved one and numbly go through the motions, finding little joy in the usual holiday festivities.

Then there’s the less-than-ideal relationship you had with a deceased loved one. Zonnebelt-Smeenge assures us grief can be one of the great deepening experiences in life and maintains the importance of keeping the best aspects of loved ones alive to pass on. Celebrate the joy he or she brought into your life and try not to dwell on past hurts. Thank God you loved and were loved by this person, even if the relationship wasn’t always perfect.

In order to get control over emotions, we need to intentionally address our grieving. I’ve heard my friends say, “It’s my first holiday without my husband or child. It’s so overwhelming and no one really understands. In fact, others seem to go on and don’t even mention my loved one, much less that he’s not with us this year.” Zonnebelt-Smeenge stresses the benefits of exercise. Don’t scrap the whole holiday and deny yourself pleasure out of obligation to the deceased. Instead, buy a gift for him or her and give it to someone in need. Lay a wreath on the grave. If you’re alone at Christmas this year, consider volunteering at a soup kitchen or nursing home. Look to make new bonds out of shared losses within a grief support group.

What do you say to others? After all, this not only affects you and your holiday but how others treat you. Here’s more advice from The Empty Chair:
· Gently instruct people by expressing your needs; forgive them for not knowing how to react.
· Find time for peace and reflection. Your loved one is there in a sense, as a part of each of you.
· Lower your expectations for the holidays; be kind and gentle with yourself, and plan ahead so you’re not overwhelmed at the last minute. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re grieving, so make lists to keep track of what you have to do. To be easier on yourself, try to simplify your to-do list this year.
· Always keep in the forefront of your mind how God stepped out of heaven in the person of Christ to be among us at Christmas. He comes to us as a babe in a manger and takes on our flesh. He weeps with us over our losses. Christ was born to later die on a cross and then rise again to prove God’s never-ending love for us. Ask His Holy Spirit to dwell in you when you are lonely or sad. His grace can reach into loss and can transform grief from an ending into an entirely new beginning. If you want to talk more about this, e-mail me. I’m asking God to work with me through my own grief this Christmas season, too.

As you face the empty chair at the Christmas table, it’s going to be hard. I’d like to send you a booklet I’ve found helpful on my own journey through loss and grief. It’s called Take Heart in Your Grief. It describes how, even though it feels like your life has folded, there are ways to start up again. There are sections about what to do with a heavy heart, how to accept change, and how to overcome obstacles. To order your free copy of this booklet, call 888.988.2057.

Let me know how you cope with the bitter and the sweet this Christmas. Offering your ideas and resources can help other people who are going through the same thing and maybe lessen your own burden a bit. The “Merry” part may be diminished this year, but the “Christ” part won’t be!

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