Ah, Christmas: the aroma of turkey baking in the oven … the sounds of children singing Christmas carols … the memories of Grandpa telling stories about "when I was a boy."
Sometimes it seems that December 25 is an enchanted day when the world stands still. It's packed with countless expectations and dreams—all tied in red and green bows and tucked under Christmas trees …
But for many, the holidays can be a season of deep loneliness and sorrow. Missing packages and empty chairs make no secret that life has changed.
Most of us realize that it is normal for those in mourning to feel great sadness and grief during the holidays. And we know that God can work through us to give the brokenhearted encouragement and companionship. But if you are like me, you have asked yourself, "How can I give hope to the grieving during the holidays?"
The gift of listening
One of the most precious gifts is the simple act of listening.
Jane and Roger Palmer's 19-year-old son, Patrick, died unexpectedly in the fall of 2003 from acute bronchial pneumonia. He went into a coma and died in his sleep while at college. Jane says, "Just being there and listening is so important. Well meaning people at times feel that they must do something, quote scriptures, or have the answers."
Instead of answers, Jane says the grieving are comforted by people with understanding hearts whose sheer presence says, "I care."
Linda Spann, whose first husband (Jimmie) died from cancer, suggests, "Let them cry if they want to cry. Let them laugh. … Being there and letting people know that you care is the most important thing."
Although Jimmie had been a strong Christian and Linda knew he was in heaven, her heart was broken. She was blessed to have her daughters and others walk alongside her and live out the words of Romans 12:15b: "Mourn with those who mourn."
Tommy Tenny, author of Trust & Tragedy, says:
What would Jesus do in our situation? We know that He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Perhaps you can't speak the words of resurrection life with the authority Jesus did when He raised Lazarus from the grave, but surely you can weep with the same passion Jesus had when He cried at the death of a friend. 1
The gift of remembrance
It is encouraging for friends and family to talk about Christmases they once shared with the deceased and to recall good memories. Those who are grieving want to talk about the ones they've lost. They may even want to rehash some unpleasant details of an illness with a close friend or a family member. Regardless, give them space to talk and let that be part of the holiday gathering.
Realize that the sounds, smells, and sights of the holidays can trigger some strong emotions. The brokenhearted will likely recall their absent loved one as friends and family gather. Let them know that it's okay to feel pain … that this is an important part of the healing process.2
We are reminded in Galatians 6:2, "Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ."
As you do this, your loved one will feel affirmed and loved. Jane says, "It is very healing and comforting when others remember or honor your loved one's memory. The simplest gesture is greatly appreciated—a hug, phone call, e-mail or card."
The gift of comforting with the comfort you were given
If you have experienced a loss similar to your grieving friend or relative, ask God to give you the ability to comfort with the comfort you were given. Paul David Tripp says in the booklet, Grief: Finding Hope Again3
The comfort God has given you is not only His loving ministry to you, it is His call to you to minister to others. You have experienced the pain of loss, but you have also begun to experience the comfort that only the Lord can give.
It was especially helpful to Jane when others who had lost children reached out to her family. They received cards and books from strangers who just wanted the Palmers to know that they understood and cared.
One stranger who lost a child sent Jane an ink stamp in the shape of a heart. Inside the heart it said, "Always in the heart—Patrick." Jane plans to use this stamp when she addresses her Christmas cards this year.
The Palmers have found comfort as they have encouraged Patrick's friends and other families who have lost loved ones. Last Christmas they gave their relatives crosses in memory of their son. This Christmas Jane plans to give some tree ornaments (crystal crosses) and copies of the book Streams in the Desert to other families who have lost children.
The gift of the unusual
Encourage your grieving friend to consider doing something out of the ordinary during the Christmas season. Linda says, "If they have grown children, go to one of their houses or take a family trip somewhere." She also encourages relatives to be attentive to emotions and says, "Sometimes kids might have to sacrifice what they had planned to do for Christmas to be with Mom or Dad."
Jane says, "Holidays are very difficult after the loss of a loved one, especially a child. … Following through with special traditions from the past may be much too painful for a grieving family."
After Patrick died, she remembers, it was too hard emotionally to decorate the Christmas tree with their special family ornaments. Instead, they purchased a smaller tree and new decorations. Her family also rented a cabin for Christmas. She says, "Grieving families should feel the freedom to celebrate the holidays in any manner that enables them, by the grace of God, to make it through the season."
This holiday, you may want to join your grieving friend or loved one and volunteer together. Although it can be encouraging for those in mourning to reach out to others, instead of focusing inward, it can also be intimidating to do this alone. Volunteering in the community for local toy and food drives, helping with Christmas activities at church, or delivering baskets of food to shut-ins in the neighborhood can lift someone's spirits.
The gift of enduring friendship
The grieving process varies from person to person. Georgia Shaffer writes that the period between six and 18 months (after the death) is generally the most difficult time. "During this time period, loved ones typically are no longer actively reaching out to the hurting person, but it's also a stage when the numbness begins to disappear and reality sinks in: Life has forever changed."4
Linda reminds us that it's important to include widowed friends in holiday activities, even if they cancel at the last minute. "If a woman, a couple should offer to go by and pick her up. Don't expect her to come by herself." She says that it's also nice to bring friends who have lost a spouse to church and to sit by them. "It's hard to sit in a spot where you always sat with your spouse."
She says, "I can remember years ago when I would be hesitant to speak to someone [who had lost a loved one] because I did not know what to say. It's not what you say, but it's just the fact that you let them know that you care."
The gift of prayer
Pray that God will give you His love and wisdom as you minister to the brokenhearted. We are told in James 5:16b, "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
John MacArthur says, "Take their sorrow to the Lord. Ask Him to heal their hearts, renew their strength, and fill them with the love and comfort of the Holy Spirit."5
You may want to send them an occasional note telling that you are praying and quoting a favorite Bible verse such as:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction.
—2 Corinthians 1:3-4a
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
When Christmas lights glow in windows and shining stars are placed on the tops of Christmas trees, pray that your brokenhearted friend will accept, by faith, the hope of Jesus Christ. You may want to share the words of Paul David Tripp with them:
In the darkness, you can see the brightest light of God's truth. … In death, you can celebrate the end of the story in the way you never had before. … May you look through the darkness and see Christ's light. In your deep sadness, receive the comfort that only He can give.6
As you read the Christmas story in Luke, pray that God will help your loved one accept the sovereignty of God. Jane says that she, Roger, and Preston have come to understand, "It is because of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we have been able to stand. Our lives are truly about eternity. … Christmas brings home the reality and promise of a sweet reunion in heaven with Jesus and our beloved son, Patrick."
The gift of hope
Remember that the brokenhearted will experience both joy and sadness during the holidays. Phyllis and Kenneth Wezeman share in their book, Finding Your Way after Your Child Dies7
When someone is missing in the fun and festivities it leaves a big gap. … Family traditions like hanging ornaments, opening gifts, or viewing neighborhood lights are just not the same.
Yet, despite feelings of incredible loss, God can work through His people to give His great comfort. As we share the Christmas story, the grieving will be reminded of our eternal hope. The Wezemans say:
We think of Jesus becoming a child like ours … and we marvel at God's love. We remember the angels who celebrated Jesus' birth—and wonder if they welcomed our dear child into heaven.
The true meaning of Christmas is not packages with red and green bows, tucked under Christmas trees. Instead, it's never-ending hope because of our Savior—hope for today … and for an eternity of tomorrows.
As Dennis Rainey says, "In the midst of the darkness … the star of Bethlehem shines bright."
25 Christmas Gifts or Remembrances for the Brokenhearted
1. A tree that can be planted in the family's yard in memory of the loved one (or a gift certificate to a nursery that can be used to purchase a tree in the spring)
2. Bibles, Christmas Poinsettias, or library books given as memorials
3. Memorials to the local church or charities
4. Home videos of the loved one (especially ones of activities that the family may not have)
5. A scrapbook filled with pictures of the loved one
6. Special Christmas ornaments (for example, if the child played the piano, see if you can find an ornament in the shape of a piano)
7. Books such as Streams in the Dessert
and When Life is Changed Forever
8. A personal item that would become a memento about the loved one's personality or gifting
9. Gift certificates to a cabin or lodge, or to a place that the loved one once enjoyed
10. An original poem about the deceased
11. A journal from friends and family with written memories about the deceased
12. A written tribute to the deceased (The Best Gift You Can Ever Give Your Parents
by Dennis Rainey and David Boehi, explains how you can do this.)
13. Addressing their Christmas cards or notes
14. Joining them in holiday shopping or doing the shopping for them
15. Asking if you can help decorate their home for Christmas
16. Sharing homemade Christmas cookies
17. Arranging family photographs in albums
18. Inviting them to decorate a gingerbread house
19. Picking them up for Christmas services at church and holiday get-togethers
20. Helping them shop for that "perfect gift" that they can give to others in memory of their loved one
21. Decorating a small tree with ornaments that have special memories of the loved one
22. Helping them write holiday memories
23. Organizing a candle-light memorial for close friends and family
24. Having a family-time of singing some of the deceased's favorite Christmas carols and hymns
25. Giving the brokenhearted blank journals to write Bible verses that remind them of God's presence, such as 2 Corinthians 1:3-4a and Jeremiah 29:11
Looking for help or inspiration this Christmas? FamilyLife offers several resources to help your family focus on Christ during your Christmas celebration. The Ever Thine Home® Christmas collection includes ornaments and other decorations help you honor Christ and proclaim your faith. The 12 Names of Christmas™ ornaments are designed to help you teach your children about Jesus is and why He came to live among us. And in When Christmas Came, Barbara Rainey reveals the substance of Christmas in poignant prose and vivid watercolors.
1. Tommy Tenney, Trust & Tragedy, (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2001) pg. 99.
2. www.mayoclinic.com, "The dagger in the heart called grief: Editor's note," 11/7/05.
3. Paul David Tripp, Grief: Finding Hope Again (Winston-Salem, NC: VantagePoint Books, 2004) pg. 14.
4. Shaffer, Georgia, "Understanding Grief," www.family.org, ©2005 Focus on the Family. 11/7/05.
5. John MacArthur, Safe in the Arms of God (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2003) pg. 168.
6. Paul David Tripp, Grief: Finding Hope Again (Winston-Salem, NC: VantagePoint Books, 2004) pg. 15.
7. Wezeman, Phyllis Vos and Kenneth R, Finding Your Way after Your Child Dies (Notra Dame, Indiana, ave maria press, 2002) pg. 44-45.