Grieving at Christmas

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Dec 18th 2016
Despite the pain of grief at Christmas there are ways that God helps us carry on.

I think that for most people hopefully Christmas is supposed to be a joyful time of year. Even the overall attitude of society recognizes the higher good that this season brings out in everyone. Companies that have no religious affiliations nevertheless at Christmastime try to accentuate their benevolent activities. Everyone is hopefully kinder during this time of year but there is a paradox, an irony of sorts, that exists. Christmas time is also the peak season for suicide and depression.

I'd like to examine this problem of grief and depression at Christmastime and how to deal with it. If this is your experience or the experience of someone you love because certainly all of us has lost someone or experienced something disappointing at this time of year. It may not have happened on December 25th, but my point is that it kind of it hits you on December 25th. My dad died 55 years ago in the springtime but I missed most of all on December 25th. I think no matter where you are, you've got some reasons to think about something that you've lost at this time of year.

Both research and personal experience tell us that people who have suffered significant loss (the death of a loved one, loss of health or work) often find the holidays (not just Christmas, but thanksgiving also) the hardest time to get through. It seems that as the mood of the people around them goes up in anticipation of the vacation, the celebration, the activities - their mood proportionately goes down.

Another specific reasons for this is we think of holidays as times of being together and for those who have lost someone these times tend to highlight the fact that the person that we love isn't there. A spouse that has gone through death or divorce perhaps a family that is far away from children, the holidays tend to remind us of our aloneness.

Another reason for personal difficulties is that high emotional times like Christmas tend to stir unhappy emotions along with good ones. You get all these emotions inside of you, it's like a stew. You have all kinds of veggies and meat and stuff, when you got all these emotions inside of you and then all of a sudden Christmastime, Thanksgiving, a good happy time with everything gets stirred up. The good and the bad get stirred up. Some people who are able to control their emotions at other times, find it hard for them not to overflow with all of the emotional pressure applied during the holidays. During the holidays every movie is sentimental, every song is sentimental, every card is sentimental. You can't help feeling sad when everything is there to stimulate your emotions.

The bittersweet nostalgic feelings we have at Christmas naturally tend to go two Christmases past where we enjoyed other good things. For the person who has an unhappy childhood or who has lost someone or some thing that existed in the past, this backward focus tends to be a painful reminder of what they had and lost or what they never had sometimes it's harder to deal with something we never had then to deal with. Something that we had and lost and then of course holidays they run in predictable cycles Christmas is always December the 25th and so people with pain and loss also have to anticipate the first Christmas without grandma or another Christmas by myself. With time the scars heal, yes, but the cycle of holidays also become a cycle of times when pain will be more intense than at other times.

We've been taught that grieving is normal, even healthy, but this does not remove the fact that grieving is painful. Just because it's normal doesn't mean it's easy. Just because you have to go through it, doesn't mean there's no pain. And some people faced with the inevitable round of pain that holidays like Christmas will provoke in themselves, they just buckle under and they give way to depression or even worse they begin to think that maybe suicide is a viable option in eliminating the pain.

How many people have said that it just hurts too much. I just want the pain to stop and they think that maybe if they take their own lives well maybe that will take away the pain. We know that's certainly not the answer and of course grieving is nothing new. It is a universal experience. Some say that the pain caused by grief is felt exactly the same way by every person regardless of their culture, their relaying their language, their religion, their age. Everybody feels the death of a spouse in exactly the same way.

Grief in the Bible

Even the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt grieved like you and like me when the angel of death took his firstborn. He wept. He grieved in the same way that you are I would grieve if our firstborn was taken from us and although Jesus wasn't exactly born in December there was grief associated with His birth. Even then Herod had every male child under 2 years of age killed in order to eliminate Jesus. When He was born the Bible tells the story of the whaling in the morning and the grieving of the mothers at the loss of their children.

We kind of read that passage, we read that line and we just fly over it because we want to get to the story about Jesus. These were real people here who lost real children. So if we review the lives of various Bible characters for example we'll see that dealing with grief is as old as man himself and the way that people dealt with their grief is in perfect accord with the grieving process described in modern psychology. I mean modern psychology explains the process of grieving but it didn't invent it. For example,

  • Eve grieved for her murdered son she was in silent shock and only breaks her silence when God finally gives her another child who would grow to be righteous and she acknowledges that God gave her Seth to replace Abel (Genesis 4:25). Reminding us that this was on her mind and this was on her heart.
  • Job displayed pretty good control despite his terrible losses but eventually his anger at God began to kind of seep out right his accusation was similar to many who have been hurt by severe tragedy he accused God of not being fair is not fair, "why me? why this? why now?"
  • David the king suffered great anguish at the deceit of Absalom his beautiful boy, his son, his favorite. He was in major denial, even though Absalom deceived his father and tried to take the kingdom away from him. He even tried to have him killed. David was still trying to save and protect this son of his and he never even acknowledged his treachery. Talk about denial.
  • Jeremiah saw and warned about the impending destruction of Jerusalem but no one listened to him. His book of Lamentations is a long and bitter account of his grief and tears over this event. He spent much of his time in depression.
  • Paul the Apostle tried to bargain with God and continually asking him to remove this thorn or this problem that afflicted him.
  • Jesus even prayed to have His suffering removed from Him but to no avail. We witnessed Him finally accepting God's will for Him in going to the cross but not before intense prayer and emotion that cause drops of blood to drip from His forehead.

All of these people experienced the universal pain of grief and loss like everyone else and they responded in the same cycle of shock and denial and anger and depression and bargaining and for some acceptance that people today go through when they grieve.

So I think we have an idea of what grief is just technically and in our own experience. I've tried to show you that several people in the Bible also experienced grieving for their loss in much the same way that we do when we have lost. But where is God in all of this? Our suffering never goes unnoticed by God whether we are in Israel 3,000 years ago or we live in modern America during Christmastime.

God cares about our pain and sorrow and he provides help to deal with these things whether we are suffering at the point of impact when the loss occurs or at the reminder stations like Christmas and Thanksgiving and other holidays. Here are some of the ways that God helps us with our grieving.

1. He provides His constant love

The loss of a loved one is really the loss of love that was exchanged between that person and ourselves. Yes, we miss the person but what's the thing that we missed the most? We missed the love that was going back and forth. That's what we miss. We can never again regain that love, the joy that we lose when someone we love leaves us or when something we love to possess or use is lost to us.

The only answer to this is to accept the fact that that love is no longer there. That doesn't solve the problem, that just acknowledges what the problem is. We can, however, focus our need for love on the love of God for ourselves that never leaves us and will always be the same.

32 For if He causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindness.
33 For He does not afflict willingly
Or grieve the sons of men.
- Lamentations 3:32-33

God does not send the grief. He doesn't send the sorrow but He does allow us to suffer it when it comes but He does send and continues to demonstrate His love for us throughout the sorrow

Paul in Romans 8 describes all of the things that have no power to separate us from God's love, he says:

35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written,
"For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered."
37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:35-39

Notice he said not even death. He's not just talking about our death, he's talking about the death of those that we love. Even the loss of the the ones that we love cannot take away or destroyed the love that God has for us. These things they bring grief and they take away our loved ones but none of these things can extinguish God's love for us when the grieving is intense.

We need to make that special effort to recognize God's continuing love for us in providing help and life and food and all the resources for our support. These are all signs of His own interrupted love and we need to stay focused on these obviously.

2. He comforts us directly

Grief is like a heavy coat that just comes over us. Talk about people going through grief and they say well it's like a heaviness right. It's like a heavy stone that weighs on your hear. When you're grieving it's as if somebody's pressing down on your heart it hurts physically. It's like a huge wave that just overwhelms us in sorrow and depression.

Jesus said, "blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted." My question is, comforted by who? Comforted by God. Let's read it again: "blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted by God."

You have seen it, for You have beheld mischief and vexation to take it into
Your hand.
The unfortunate commits himself to You;
You have been the helper of the orphan.
- Psalm 10:14

In these passages God is the direct helper and comforter of the sad and the oppressed. We like to pray, "God please work through your ministers or work through your servants to comfort and heal" or "direct the hands of the doctors" and "help the ministers say the right thing" and "work through your people Lord" but God works through people many times but sometimes He works directly to help the comfort, to support and to heal. No middleman. Just you and God.

Jesus promised the Apostles that He would send the Comforter not only to help their memory but also to help them in difficult times, to give them the right words to say when persecuted (Luke 12:12) and to comfort the church in times of difficulty and change (Acts 9:31)

Of course, He gives this comfort to the Christian who trusts in God's ability and willingness to deal directly with his hurts and sorrows. I believe in God's direct ability to lift my sorrow when all of a sudden from one moment to the next, what seemed impossible, what seems so difficult, what seems so hurtful, what seemed that "oh Lord I gonna have to live with this or deal with this impossible thing the rest of my life" that it seems so hopeless and then somehow in the middle of my prayer, that thing is just lifted from me. The situation hasn't changed the obstacle is still there, the thing that is causing my pain and my fear is still there but somehow I sense in my spirit I think I'll be okay. It's going to hurt but I think i'm gonna make it. I'll be ok. Who do you think did that? Satan? He's the only other spirit out there interested in working on me. Well no!

Why is it that we find it so hard to believe that God will directly work within us when we continually pray to Him? Why should we be surprised that He answers the prayer? I'm not. There are times when our deepest depression is suddenly lifted and we experience that peace that surpasses understanding, that peace that surpasses understanding is not always intellectual enlightenment. We like to think that it's always if I can understand it, if I can explain it, if i can go A and B and C and D and therefore summarize it. We think we have to have that experience in order to have the peace that surpasses understanding. Meaning the peace that surpasses understanding happens when we understand what He's saying. The exact opposite - it surpasses understanding, I don't know how I got there spiritually, I can't explain it to you, I can't give you an equation, I just know what happened. I understand before I felt lost before I felt it was impossible and now I have hope. Can God do that? Absolutely, He can do that. Do we ever asked him to? That's another question.

This happens not only because of pills and medication and meditation or exercise and counseling, sometimes it just happens suddenly as God reaches into our lives and personally comforts us with His presence. We don't know how or why, we just know that the grief is gone for a moment, for a day.

And so how does God help us? His uninterrupted love. If we're willing to see it and His direct comfort if we're willing to accept it and then also for those who are grieving:

3. He supplies hope

The sting of grief is the finality of the event: death, loss of health, the loss of our partner, the loss of whatever, our job, our mobility is gone, no getting it back and it hurts because whatever is lost is not coming back. I remember as a fifteen-year-old not long after my own father died. He died right in front of me from a heart attack. How it is when you're that age or if you've lost somebody there's a lot of activity going on the funeral the relatives coming in and out you don't have time to think right and I remember when everything finished my mom had to go back to work I mean I was 15, so she went back to work and and I would come home from school and have my key and let myself in and back in those days. They would show reruns of shows and one of the reruns they showed was of "I Love Lucy" and I still remember the show where she's working on an assembly line making cakes or something and she's doing okay in the cakes and she's fixing it and they're going by and that all of a sudden she misses one in the and the thing starts going faster and faster and and then they've got the canned laughter, everybody's laughing and I'm watching this and the thought that strikes me is my father is dead and Lucy is still clowning around. She doesn't know my father is dead. Life is just going to go on without him won't it. His death didn't change anything in "I Love Lucy" or a hockey game on Saturday night. The only thing that changed was my life and that's when I understood that he was not coming back and I would have to go on without him. And 55 years later I'm still having trouble with that memory but God supplies hope.

God ministers to this pain by providing hope for the future despite the pain of the moment. When we feel that there's no use going on or there's nothing good in the future or there is no future or the future is not going to be like we always thought it was going to be or the future is not going to be like we want it to be or the future is not going to be like it ought to be for ourselves for our children when that happens, God gives us hope. He gives us a vision for the future.

Isaiah said in reference to the fall of Israel and her destruction,

"Your sun will no longer set,
Nor will your moon wane;
For you will have the Lord for an everlasting light,
And the days of your mourning will be over.
- Isaiah 60:20

In reference to the loss of their leader and Lord, Jesus said to the Apostles:

6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.
20 but your grief will be turned into joy.
- John 16:6;20

In these passages God makes two promises in providing hope to those who have lost in life and have a bleak view of the future promise:

  1. Whatever you've lost He will replace it with better. The home prepared in heaven will be worth whatever grief we have suffered here.
  2. Wherever you go He will be there with you. Whether you grieve in loneliness or illness or loss of position or death God promises to remain with you and create a future for you with Himself.

You may not have a future with your father or your child or your spouse or someone else. Maybe you won't have a future with them but He promises that you will have a future with Him. So let us not be like the pagans who grieve and who have no hope as Paul says in 1st Thessalonians 4:13. Let us believe in God and let us remain faithful to Christ who gives us a hope in a better and an eternal future with Him.

And so since this paradox of joy and sadness does exist at this time of year, let's remember a few important ideas that will help us at this time.

  1. Let's be sensitive to those around us who may be covering a broken heart. Christmas is a time for family and rejoicing, absolutely, but it can also be a time when we can minister to those who struggle during this period. Just keep your eyes open, just keep your ears open.
  2. If you are struggling try to stay focused on what God has done in ministering to you at this time recognize and acknowledge His love for you and go ahead and ask for His direct comfort, His direct intervention and remember that no matter what, you do have a glorious future through Jesus Christ. No matter how bleak things may seem here and now.
  3. Don't resent those who are happy just because you are not. Don't be envious. Realize that sooner or later we all get our turn to cry. Everybody gets there sooner or later, don't resent them, pray for them. It will be healthier for you and healthier for them.

Of course the most sorrowful thing about Christmas is that there are some who are quite happy to celebrate Jesus with gifts and visits and food but will not accept Jesus as their Lord and their Savior. The loss of our souls will cause us endless grief and sorrow when He returns and endless grief and sorrow that has no remedy. Let's truly honor Jesus as Lord. Let's truly honor Him as King and Savior today by confessing His name and repenting and being baptized if we have not done that yet or being restored to Him through repentance and prayer if we have fallen away or if we have sinned in such a way that has separated us from Him or from those in the church.

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Bill Schlarb, Bruce Veinot
for the Ottawa West Church of Christ