Crying as We Rejoice: The Bereaved at Christmas

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I secretly cried after Mass yesterday. My kids told me that one of the new altar boys that they served with had his grandparents in town for Christmas. The enthusiastic Nanna and Papa were so gleefully proud, they couldn’t refrain from snapping photos to memorialize their beloved grandson’s biggest moments. Clearly, their hearts swelled with pride for their daughter’s treasured offspring.

On the drive home, I told my boys that if Grandma Maureen and Grandpa Jerry were living, they would have taken loads of pictures too. How proud they would be. How proud they are. “Maybe they’re taking photos from heaven…” I mused. Then the quiet tears.

At long last, Christmas has arrived. While it is meant to be a profoundly joyful celebration signaling our Lord’s great gift to us in His participation in our lowly humanity, many of us experience deep sadness and hurt. It’s been 25 years since my mom left this earth, and yet there are times I still miss her as much as that excruciatingly awful day she unexpectedly departed. Eight very long years have also passed since my dad’s death which often feels like a blink of an eye. I miss them both, especially at these times the rest of the world celebrates with their loved ones. More than anything, I miss enjoying my kids’ major milestones with my mom and dad at my side.

Over time, I’ve learned to cope better with my grieving, especially when conversely the calendar reminds everyone else to be in celebratory mode. While the world is partying it up, I can acknowledge the loved ones who have died and still manage to enjoy myself. But make no mistake, it has required some mental, emotional maneuvering to dwell on the things I am grateful for. It takes years, decades even of getting used to a new mindset. But the healing doesn’t happen as readily without supportive friends and family. Having loving support is an integral part of the process of mending a wounded soul. But what about those who are suffering the fresh wounds of a loved one’s recent death? How do those around them help them better navigate their walk through mourning?

In an effort to help those who are struggling with loss at this time of year, it’s so important that the rest of us try to acknowledge and empathize with their pain. But most loving, kind individuals who have not experienced loss don’t know how to treat the bereaved. While the intention of our friends and family is often really good, they can often step in the proverbial heap of “you know what.” As we welcome this amazing feast day of the Nativity of our Lord, here are some do’s and don’t in dealing with the bereaved. I consulted a couple of dear friends and advisors who have also courageously traveled the journey of grief. What follows is a compilation of our most salient suggestions.

1.) Realize there’s no one-size fits all approach to helping the bereaved. Sorry to those of you looking for an easy apply-all set of instructions. We humans don’t work that way. We are completely unique, multi-layered individuals. What is helpful to one person, may not work for another. So while these suggestions are generally helpful, there’s no magic bullet. Be mindful of that. And if you hit a wall, offer your sincere regrets. Acknowledging we’ve screwed up and said the wrong thing can remove, if only momentarily, the giant elephant  of pain in the room. Be mindful of a person’s temperament. If they are melancholic like myself, they may prefer one-on-one chats. They wouldn’t want the spotlight on their grief during a party. If someone is more outgoing, they may prefer a gesture from the group, maybe a special gift memorializing their deceased loved one. The point is to try your best to be in tune and present to the person and their specific individual needs.

2.) Reach out to the bereaved! Even when our friends act as if they are completely ok, chances are it’s a facade. Acknowledging that Christmas must be a tough time for them is so important. Do invite them to all of the festivities. It’s ok if they decline. Tell them they have an open invitation. But be sure to not leave them alone in their emotional isolation. If they come, ask them about their loved one. I remember after my mom died, I desperately longed to talk to everyone and anyone about the amazing person that I called mom who was now tragically gone from my life. It was an incredible story that I needed everyone to hear. Tragically, no one asked. We often mistakenly tiptoe around those who are mourning as if reminding them of their loss will reopen their wounds. This is mistaken thinking. It’s so important that the bereaved have people around them who have receptive hearts. People who are grieving need to share their grief story with supportive loving friends. They need to do it repeatedly. Taking an interest in their sadness is such a gift. And if they tell you they’d rather not speak of their struggles, that’s ok too. You just remind them that when they are ready to talk you are there for them. Such beautiful words of Christ-like love bring a smile to this grieving heart.

3.) Do NOT try to make them feel better. This most certainly comes from a good place, but it can be very damaging. Some of the well-meaning things I’ve personally heard and things my friends have been told could pave an industrial five-lane highway to hell. People are trying to cheer up the bereaved when they say things like, “you’re lucky, your loved one died peacefully/ quickly/ slowly/ fill-in-the-blank.” Listen up, NO ONE who is grieving a dead loved one is lucky! That doesn’t make anyone feel better. Take the pressure off of yourself of trying to cheer someone up. It simply does NOT work. Instead, your presence and concern are worth so much. You don’t actually need to say a lot. Words are overrated in these instances. Keep it simple. “I”m here for you” works particularly well. Also, do not confuse not cheering someone up with being morose. It’s ok to have cheer and a sense of humor around the bereaved, especially during the holidays. No one wants a pity party. We just want to be welcomed and accepted, sadness and all. Though the bereaved will not be the life of the party, that doesn’t mean they may not enjoy a lively party themselves. Laughter can be very therapeutic. The point is, let them decide what works. But do NOT consider it your job to make them happy. They most likely will not be happy for a very long time.

4.) Do NOT go on and on about your personal loss. While it’s certainly alright to empathize with people’s pain, “I lost my mom too,” be careful about not making the whole discussion about yourself and your personal struggles. Try to be self-sacrificial in your conversation and make it about the other person and their loss. For instance, “I lost my mom suddenly too. How has it been for you?” People who have raw wounds are not in a state to receive even more depressing stories.

5,) Do NOT say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Unless you’re God, you don’t know the pain the person is carrying. Everyone’s cross is different. We can acknowledge that cross while not presuming to completely understand it. A simple, “I’m so sorry for your loss/  your pain/ your struggles” will suffice.

6.) Do LOVE them! This will obviously depend on your relationship with the person who is grieving, but figure out a way to show them your love and acceptance. Love them authentically—sadness, crankiness, awkwardness, tears and all. It could be a note, a prayer, phone call, but show them some real LOVE. As if you needed a reason, remember it is a corporal work of mercy. Consider that Christ Jesus himself made it the second beatitude in his perfect sermon on the mount.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. —Matthew 5,4

A blessed Christmas to all of you, especially those in most need of comfort right now. May the peace of the baby Jesus be in your hearts. Let us pray that we will once again set our eyes on our loved ones. Oh, what a comforting, joyful day!

*A special thank you to Cindy, Clarice, Jeannean, and Maggie in helping me to write this. God bless you for using your own pain for a greater purpose!

**Photo by erin walker on Unsplash

11 thoughts on “Crying as We Rejoice: The Bereaved at Christmas”

  1. How appropriate for me this day. My 83 year old brother Frank died this past Friday the 21st. Thank you for the wonderful reflections.

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  2. My husband entered hospice care on Dec. 4, and passed away Christmas Night. (Last night)

    I’m trying to pray for the store clerk who called me “Grinch” when I didn’t enthusiastically share his holiday Jolly. And the choir member, who upon hearing that my beloved was still hanging on the evening of the 23rd, commented, “You mean he’s not dead yet?!”

    May the Lord keep His arm around their shoulder, and his hand over their mouths.

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    1. My deepest condolences! May God surround you in this time of profound suffering. Your response to to pray for those displaying such stupidity/ ignorance/ carelessness is nothing short of heroic. I’d like to throttle them for you! Be prepared for more foot-in-mouth moments… I just said a memorare for you and your husband.

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  3. Thank you to each of you for sharing your grieving. My son died tragically and alone in May. A few months later, I felt as though I was having a heart attack for a long time.. I looked it up, and, yes, there is a “broken-heart syndrome”. It is painful and debilitating. I’ve taken steps to help without going the medicine route, walking briskly outdoors, with deep breathing. When I start walking, I start singing: “Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks To The Risen Lord!” I go to Mass often. I still laugh heartily with people. I try to have a glass of wine, and when it is with friends, it is all the better. I find that people don’t know how to respond to me. They’ll look at me with joy and then turn their heads down in sorrow. I have to say, “No, no, I’m going to be okay.” When people say they don’t know how to deal with a son’s death, I say that Mary did. I thank her that I canI share in her broken heart, and in my son’s broken heart. Someone told me that we’ll never get over it, we’ll just learn to live with it. This is our first new Christmas experience. Everyone is doing the same thing in a new way. We are each grieving in joy, and the children help a lot.

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  4. To Mary Jo, Kar, Dolores, and Robert: My deepest sympathies to all of you! My heart breaks for your broken hearts, and please know that I pray every day for those who are suffering the loss of their loved ones! My brother Dan and his wife lost their oldest son to a rare and excruciating cancer this past January, and my brother Steve lost his son, who was hit by a truck while crossing a street in July. This is my brothers’ first Christmas without their children, and I have watched them suffer, but also watched them call on their strong faith in God and in the resurrection, and the glory of eternal life! Their courageous acceptance of their terrific crosses has been so inspirational to me, that I can’t put it into words.

    This beautiful essay is so perfect for this Christmas… and any other time! Thank you, Mary Jo, and once again, my prayers and love are with you, and with Kar, Dolores, and Robert… and all those suffering the loss of their child, husband, sibling, or parent!

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    1. God be with you and your siblings, Linda. They are blessed to have such a compassionate soul in their lives. While it will not heal their wounds, it is a balm. If only we were all as empathetic to others’ suffering. Thank you!

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