If grief is a mighty river, most of us live the majority of our days from the safety of the shore, where the occasional strong wave laps at our toes. But inevitably, at some point in our lives, we’ll find ourselves in over our heads, choking on grief’s bitter water and grasping for air. Our vessels, battered. Our souls, weary.

Are you experiencing grief at Christmas? This strange year has flooded the riverbanks with collective grief, as well as plunged many into the depths of specific heart-wrenching loss. Holidays can bring a fresh ache and pain, bringing memories to the surface or empty chairs into focus. We miss the presence of what or who we lost, and we feel more acutely the hole left behind.

That hole, borne of the searing pain of loss, can become a sacred space for the comfort Christmas brings.

We know Christmas is about more than presents and peppermint, but sometimes we forget it’s even more than a birthday party or reenactments of the Nativity.

Christmas celebrates the day God came into this world, with blood and anguish. After centuries of waiting, sighs, crying out met with silence, God’s voice joined ours’ beginning with a baby’s wail.

The hole grief creates

Five years ago, I had a Christmas like no other. That Fall, I’d waded in the waters of grief with loved ones for their losses: A dear family friend’s son had taken his own life. A precious sister in Christ’s baby was stillborn. My husband’s grandfather and uncle passed away. Then, I was thrust under the water: I suffered a miscarriage the first week of December.

All of this happened while my husband, daughter, and I were 8,000 miles away from our families. I’d never experienced such acute pain and loss before. My grief at Christmas felt all-consuming—like all the world and everything in and around me was full of death.

That Christmas was unlike any I’d ever experienced. And that December will always be a treasured memory I hold in my heart. Despite feeling consumed with the reality of death, I remember feeling most fully alive and most fully human.

Grief created what at first felt like a deafening silence. I had no desire to fill it with the usual noise (TV shows, endless social media scrolling). My grief kept me from singing along with Christmas hymns, but my heart absorbed the words into deeper places, even as the tears rolled down my cheeks. The minor chords of longing and waiting and needing resolution matched the music in my soul.

Yet, I found that in allowing myself to sit in the silence and to feel the pain of barrenness, God was transforming the gaping hole into a broad space of comfort.

How? Christmas.

The real Christmas Jesus

For the first time in my life, I met Christmas Jesus—God with Us (see Matthew 1:23).

I met the Jesus who came to join us in our bloody, broken pain. The Jesus who had conflicts with siblings, experienced sicknesses and abandonment, was the subject of scorn and misunderstanding. The Jesus who experienced the death of His adoptive father and some of His closest friends. Who was more aware of the suffering around Him than we could ever be (the suffering literally sought Him out and followed Him) and experienced the limitations His humanity imposed on Him. The One who suffered a silence we will never have to suffer—because of His work on the Cross—to be forsaken by God.

I thought Christmas Jesus was a happy, chubby baby—halo of light resting on His head. And somewhere in my mind, that haloed baby grows up to be felt-board Jesus from Sunday school, flat and unmoving, stoic and unaffected by the brokenness around Him.

Neither of those images seem to have much to say to our blood, sweat, and tears. The real Christmas Jesus grew up to turn over tables on people taking advantage of the poor, offend and challenge those with power, walk on stormy seas (and calm them), weep openly over dead hearts and dead bodies, and become troubled enough to sweat blood in Gethsemane. There’s nothing stoic, flat, or unmoving about the real Christmas Jesus—He came to be with us. For us. To show us what it means to be fully human.

And in this broken world, being fully human means grieving.

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God with us in grief’s floodwaters

If you find yourself in grief’s churning waters this Christmas, let me first say, I am so sorry. Death and loss are part of life this side of heaven. But please remember something being common doesn’t diminish the pain. Christmas is about God entering our pain, our mess. About light entering the darkness.

So let me offer a glimmer of hope in the storm: You will not drown.

I remember walking through a historic part of town with a friend who’s known many hardships. We passed a beautiful old church and she told me the shape of many churches is meant to mimic the underside of a ship, the arc, to remind believers that Jesus provides safe haven from the floodwaters and storms of life. He does not lead us into the waters of pain and grief without going before us. Cling to Him for dear life; He will not leave you.

God the Father knows the agony of being a grieving parent—losing His only son whom He loved. Jesus, the most fully alive human to ever walk the planet, was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief and pain. He lived his entire life knee-deep in grief’s waters and ultimately dove deeper than any of us ever will to show us the way. He knows grief is great; His love is greater.

In grief at Christmas, lift your eyes

There was one word-picture during my own season of despair that helped transform the way I felt about my grief and my God. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew, the main character, Digory, was grieving that his mother was on her deathbed.

“But please, please—won’t you—can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared to Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great.”

Dear fellow mourner, this is the wonder of Christmas. Our God’s face bent down near our own, His grief even greater than our own. You may feel it was His “great feet” and “huge claws” that thrust you in grief’s waters, but that is not His position towards you. He is bent down, bent low with you, great shining tears matching, exceeding yours, responding with tenderness and empathy.

Wonder of wonders, indeed.

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Laura Way served with FamilyLife as a writer and lives in Orlando, Florida with her high-school-teaching-husband, Aubrey, and their two vibrant young daughters. She and Aubrey lived in East Asia for seven years until relocating last year. She enjoys writing about becoming more fully human while sojourning through different places, seasons of life, and terrains of mental and spiritual health at HighwaysInOurHearts.com.