Article courtesy of eCondolence.com
Christmas is both a day and a season. It is celebrated culturally by many and religiously by Christians. The bright lights, presents, excitement, parties, family events, decorations, special church services, and memories can be grief triggers regardless of the amount of Christian emphasis a particular family puts on the holiday.
Missing a person at Christmas can be painful, but the bereaved can begin to work through their grief by embracing the love and hope of the season. Caregivers, including clergy, chaplains, therapists, and funeral directors, can serve as a guide for grieving families through the Christmas season.
Seasonal Celebrations and Triggers
Joy and excitement are everywhere at Christmastime. Whether the grieving family in your care sees Christmas as a secular, cultural celebration, or a deeply religious holiday, everywhere they turn there are reminders of past holidays. These memories may be bittersweet, can lead to tears or smiles.
It can be helpful to talk with the bereaved about how difficult the holiday season may be for them. Consider using statements such as, “A lot of things can happen this season that may lead to big feelings. Be prepared for them.” Remind them that “all feelings are valid.”
Part of validating any potential emotions families may feel is also giving them permission to enjoy the holiday season. When people are living in fresh grief, they often feel guilty when they catch themselves having a good time. When preparing them for grief triggers, remind them that they are allowed to feel the joy of the season, too. They can still miss their loved one while enjoying Christmas lights and baking cookies.
Christmastime is full of family traditions at church, home, school, work, and among long-time friends. These traditions can emphasize that we are missing someone. Perhaps a family bakes Christmas cookies together, and the person who led the baking has died. Perhaps the family buys a fresh tree together the day after Thanksgiving, and the person who was most excited about picking the tree and decorating it is gone. Maybe the person who died always sang loudly during “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” at services. Caregivers can guide people in processing the meaning of these traditions.
Ask them to share what a typical Christmas Day looks like, from who hosts the day, to who travels, and when presents are opened. Listen actively as they tell stories. Stories from Christmases past can create space for the bereaved to be animated and process emotions they may have been holding back.
Offer statements such as, “I wonder what traditions your family has at Christmas. I wonder if there are any you are anxious about without _______ being there.” Ask them about meaningful Christmas ornaments, or traditions driving around the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. Guide them in processing how they feel about those customs. People who are grieving may be fearful of saying they want to avoid certain family traditions, because they worry it will upset other family members.
Being able to name any fear or anxiety about a certain aspect of the holiday, whether a big or small tradition, can be healing. Create space for the bereaved to process how they feel about shopping for presents or a big family meal with a newly empty chair. Encourage them to discuss those worries with their family. Their family may decide to set a place at the table for their loved one to honor them, donate presents in their memory, or buy a miniature tree just to highlight the deceased’s favorite ornaments. With your support, they can begin to find meaning in the holiday through their hurt.
Hope, Peace, Joy and Love
The themes of the Advent Season are hope, peace, joy and love as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. While participating in the cultural aspects of Christmas, Christians are also preparing their hearts and minds for what Christ’s birth means in their faith and personal lives. The four Sundays of Advent are then followed by a Christmas Eve service at church that is full of traditional hymns. It is a powerful service, and generations of families often attend together.
Each moment of the Christmas Eve service, and the anticipation leading up to that night, can bring the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ, while at the same time serving as a constant reminder of who they have lost. Chaplains and clergy can be of great support during the Advent season as well as on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Allow families to reflect on each of the themes of Advent and the meaning of Christ’s birth in their lives. It can be empowering for them to reflect on the words of “hope, peace, joy, and love.” Guide them in writing down what each word means to them. Where do they find each? How do they feel each? Use the themes as journal prompts and discussion topics to help them process their grief, and they may find powerful healing in the process.
Empty Spot Around the Tree
Grief will not fade for the holidays, and it will likely pop up for years to come. As people begin to grow with their grief, they can become self-aware of the triggers and lean on their coping skills.
Christmastime can be an annual trigger itself. Encourage families to accept that grief is part of the love they feel at Christmas for the people they miss. Guide them in paying attention to what traditions, songs, ornaments, and cookies trigger them. Self-awareness will allow them to celebrate the holiday and honor the person they lost. With your openness, encouragement, and guidance, those grieving can feel the hope and love of Christmas.
About eCondolence.com: The information and tools available on eCondolence seek to clarify the questions and offer reliable answers for those who are grieving or who want to help someone who is. eCondolence.com provides guidance on appropriate items to send and words to express condolences in a respectable and understanding way. Learn more.