When Grief Steals Christmas

As a hospice chaplain grief is a common experience in my work. Here we are in the middle of the holiday season, the most joyful season of the year, and yet many people are struggling with grief. Grief is a natural response to loss, a deep sorrow that can manifest in us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Though there are some common expressions of grief, each experience of grief is as unique as the person experiencing it.

My job, in addition to supporting the patient, is to also support the family. This happens simultaneously as I support the patient in their transition from life to death and continues on as we offer bereavement support for families for a year or more after the death of their loved one. I reach out to them individually to check in at 1 week, 1 month, 6 months, and 1 year through a phone call or a personal visit, depending on the needs of the person. As an organization, we offer a variety of grief groups for even more consistent support for those who are grieving.

Recently I was invited to facilitate a youth bereavement group. As a former youth pastor, this seems like a no-brainer – yet initially I felt a hesitation. At the same time, I had a request from a patient who asked me to minister to a young child in their family who is struggling with anxiety surrounding their impending death. I hear God’s call to this special ministry to youth, but If I am honest I still feel ill-equipped.

My experience in chaplaincy tells me the best preparation for ministry must begin with me. So I have to ask myself, what about this scares me? What do I need to deal with in myself in order to be in a place to help others?

And suddenly it dawns on me. My first experience with death came at the young age of twelve when my grandmother died. Growing up, my grandmother was the one person in my life who always made me feel known, valued, and loved. For me grief struck on Christmas morning as I waited with my siblings excitedly by the Christmas tree, eyeing the beautifully wrapped presents stacked neatly under the tree begging to be ripped open with abandon. I had no idea my world was about to implode, putting an unnamed damper on Christmas for years to come.

That Christmas morning we were waiting for my grandparents to arrive so we could open presents. We took turns peering out the window to be the first to spot their car pull in the driveway and signal the end of our agonizing anticipation. Instead it was the phone that rang. My mom took the call and hurriedly left the house saying grandma was not feeling well and to go ahead and open presents. The mood shifted, taking the joy with it.

My grandmother was taken to the hospital that morning and diagnosed with a brain tumor. I am not exactly sure who, either my parents, my grandmother, or both, thought it best we children did not see her in the hospital. I never saw her again. The pain and loneliness were devastating.

No one ever talked to me about the grief I was feeling – no one even asked how I was feeling. If they had, maybe I could have articulated my feelings of fear and loneliness. Unable to express those emotions or say my last goodbye to my grandmother caused me to express my feelings in other ways. I began to act out in school and at home. This is a normal reaction to unexpressed pain. Even kids need to grieve. As I matured, I learned to manage my nameless grief, mostly. But Christmas continued to be haunted by this anonymous grey cloud.

As Christmas approached each year, the anxiety would begin to rise, and sadness set in. Christmas gatherings often resulted in family conflict as my emotions got the best of me. Once I had children of my own, I tried to recreate the Christmas joy I remembered feeling as a child. No matter how hard I tried, I struggled with my feelings matching my actions – I was just going through the motions. The truth was, I did not look forward to Christmas. I put everything off until the last minute: shopping, decorating, cookie baking, wrapping… and then breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was finally over. This is how my unexpressed grief reared its ugly head, determined to be noticed, every Christmas.

I know I cannot authentically hold space for another if I have unhealed grief of my own. Identifying and processing my own grief allows me to use those places to see the pain of others without projecting my pain on to them.

As I reflect again on the questions: what about this scares me? And What do I need to deal with in myself in order to be in a place of help for others? I realize I am already doing it; confronting my fear by reflecting, writing, and sharing my feelings with others. This is the way to healing. And something else happened: as I give grief a name, calling it out of the darkness, it no longer holds the same power over me. I literally felt a shift and a lightening of my spirit. My heart is healing.

As I heal, my grief gives way to beautiful memories of my grandmother. I find I am thinking about her more now than ever and the flood of warm memories brings joy and healing to my heart. This Christmas my husband and I put up a Christmas tree for the first time since 2008. Initially, I felt the familiar angst. But as soon as it went up, I felt a release and a Christmas joy I had not felt in a long time.

I realize I have exactly what I need to minister to youth who are grieving. My own experience reminds me how important it is to allow these young people a safe space to express their grief. They need support to work through their own process of healing so they can move forward. I am all in.

Grief is a necessary expression of our experience of deep loss – we must grieve. Grief left unexpressed can leave us with a hole that robs us of the joy the memories of those we grieve hold, and the ability to move forward in a healthy, productive way.

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