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When you’re grieving during the holidays

When you’re grieving during the holidays, you might feel out of place, out of step with the rest of the world.

But believe me, countless others are right there with you. And it’s OK for you to honor where your heart is right now.

At the holiday stress workshop I led last week, we discovered that almost everyone there was dealing with grief in some way, mourning family members who had died, or grappling with the serious illness of a loved one, or carrying some other tender weight on their heart.

Grief is part of our lives, especially in this season with all the memories of holidays gone by. How could it be otherwise?

And yet, there’s a sense in our culture that grief during the holidays is somehow inappropriate, a downer that’s incompatible with the stereotypes of holiday cheer and happy twinkly lights. So countless grieving souls end up feeling isolated and alone.

As I shared with the workshop participants, the holiday season was brutal for me the first year after my mom died. I missed her so much. Decorating the tree with the ornaments she’d given me over the years, making the dishes we always used to make as a family—everything hurt that year. Everything reminded me of her.  

That year, the congregation where I was serving had a staff holiday party where the expectation was that the whole staff would go and have a great time. I was looking forward to it and showed up ready for a nice break.

But once someone started playing Christmas carols, I was flooded with memories of my mom, a lifelong choral singer, singing the alto part along with all the carols she heard on the radio. Soon I was on the verge of crying. I really, really wanted to leave. But I didn’t feel I could. I was afraid my colleagues might not understand. So I stayed, and I tried to put on a cheery front. But inside I was just so sad.

Now I realize, it didn’t have to be that way. I mean, for me, there was no getting around feeling sad that year. It was just how things were. But looking back, I wish I had just followed my instincts to get out of there. I really think everyone would have understood, if I’d just been honest with them about what I was feeling. If I’d given them the chance to support me.

So this year, if you are grieving, please know that you are not alone. You and your broken heart have every right to be at the holiday table, just as you are. And more people than you think might understand. Because a lot of them have been where you are now, too.

And if you’re in a good place this year, why not reach out to a friend who’s lost someone recently, or who’s worried about a loved one who’s ill, and let them know you’re there for them? It might just mean the world to them.

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