Most people look forward to the holidays and the attendant family celebrations and traditions. But during the holidays, those who have lost loved ones will be even more potently reminded of their pain and grief. Nancy Guthrie, cohost of GriefShare: Surviving the Holidays, discusses ways for pastors not only to help grieving people make it through this difficult season, but to offer them hope.
Why are holidays so difficult for grieving people?
Holidays are family time in our culture, filled with traditions shared with loved ones over the years. However, for those who have lost family members, someone is missing from the family gathering, and everywhere there are reminders that the holidays don’t feel right anymore. Here are some examples:
- An empty place at the Christmas dinner table where a loved one used to sit.
- The decision about holiday family photos: Many people even avoid taking family pictures for a while after someone in the family has died because of how painful it can be to pose for and look at the photos.
- Opening the box of Christmas ornaments: Many families have a box that they pull out every year filled with Christmas ornaments. Those ornaments represent experiences, times in their lives, that are now painful reminders of what was.
What common mistakes should you avoid when trying to comfort a grieving person during the holidays?
Trying to make the grieving person’s situation better: Don’t assume that grieving people need you to do or say something that fixes their situation. Rather, grieving people need you to show understanding: enter into the pain of their loss and the sense of emptiness it brings.
Trying to cheer up the grieving person: You should not assume that grieving people need to be cheered up—that in some way sadness is an enemy. That would be true only if sadness serves no purpose and is a denial of the gospel’s reality.
Assuming their sadness has no value: Sadness is a very appropriate response to loss in life. Sadness is not an enemy. Nor are tears. In fact, I really think of tears as a tool God uses to wash over and to help wash away the deep hurts that life in this world brings. Tears aren’t necessarily a denial of faith. The Psalms are filled with tears and give divine words for grieving people to pray back to God. Loss, and even profound sadness, makes sense, given a world where such loss is inevitable.
What can you say to a grieving person without being awkward?
The first thing people usually say to a grieving person is “How are you?” You may say it because you want to communicate your care for and desire to hear about that person. But sometimes that question is heard as a demand for a report. You don’t mean it that way, but sometimes it lands that way. If you put yourself in the grieving person’s shoes, it might help you understand what it’s like to be called upon for an answer to that question. Maybe the truth is, “I’m crying all the time, and I feel hopeless of ever feeling better.” But who wants to give that kind of report, especially in the hallway of church?
So grieving people tend to say something like “fine,” “good,” or “better,” even though it may not be true.
You should avoid posing a question that might sound like you want to hear, “I’m not grieving anymore. I’m all better.” Ask a more creative question—something as simple as “What’s your grief like these days?” Or, “Are there certain times of the day, or perhaps certain days of the week, that are really hard for you not having Bob here?”
Such questions are better because they presuppose the person will be dealing with grief for a while. Those types of questions invite the grieving person to talk openly about what form his or her grief is currently taking. These questions show sensitivity and an openness to hear something significant and honest rather than merely inviting someone to give a good progress report.
How can you use the meaning of Christmas to give hope to a grieving person?
Jesus was sent into this world and became one of us. He experienced what it’s like to live in this world. I think about when Jesus got the news that John the Baptist had died. Jesus understands the deep grief of losing someone He loved! Jesus also personally understands what it’s like to face death. But more significantly for grieving people, Christmas is an opportunity for them to reflect on the deeply personal meaning of Jesus coming into this world to begin to set things right and ultimately to bring in the new creation.
When grieving people have that sense of what Christmas is all about, they can celebrate the holiday in a way that perhaps they never had before. You can remind grieving people that Jesus came into this world and took death upon Himself to conquer it. Even while still feeling a great deal of sorrow, Christians can experience a new sense of joy because there’s a deeper understanding and a deeper longing—a deeper longing for what Jesus began when He came the first time and will bring to full fruition when He comes a second time. Christmas means hope has entered into the world so that one day death will be abolished for good! This could mean more now than it ever did before to someone who has lost a loved one.
What else might help grieving people survive the holidays?
Grief can be a reason to start new holiday traditions. Many people feel like the way they’ve always done holidays is written in stone. I think it’s great for you to come alongside grieving people and suggest that maybe they don’t have to do things the way they have always done them. New traditions don’t have to erase the treasured moments of the past; they merely shed a new light on the hope we share in Christ.
How can churches do more to help grieving people this holiday season?
Consider offering a GriefShare: Surviving the Holidays seminar at your church. It’s not too late to schedule an event! Learn more at www.griefshare.org/sth. Or talk to a free ministry coach about what you need to do to offer a program this December.