The holiday season following a significant loss is often the hardest.
For that reason, compassion, care, kindness and patience need to guide the interactions during this stressful time.
Isolating and staying away does not make it easier. In fact, there is great comfort and strength in the family coming together.
A shared sense of absence can often mediate some of the profound sadness of the loss. One could call it the power of distraction.
The hubbub of a gathered family of many generations provides a lot of activity and noise that can help distract one from the absence of the loved one during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
There are some encouragements I would offer during this time and some actions and remarks I would discourage during this time. Let’s start with the encouragements.
First, do everything you can to show up.
This is not the holiday to be too busy to get together with the rest of the family. In fact, it may well be the most important holiday ever because of the weightiness of it because of the loss within the family.
Second, accept the probability this will be a tough gathering for all and be willing to show grace to all who have been caught up in the loss.
While the same person is absent from the gathering, each member of the family had a different relationship with the one who has died. Even within families, members deal with their loss differently and express their pain differently.
Third, get comfortable with tears.
As a pastor, I had a routine that I pretty much follow even to this day in the counseling room. I find the tissue box and make sure it is available to the person with whom I’m conversing. Reaching for tissues is a universal sign that tears are welcome and expected here.
Additionally, silence should not be avoided. Sometimes we say the most foolish things in the face of our anxiety over silence. Presence is always more powerful than pious words.
Fourth, keep an eye on those who slip away to another part of the house to compose themselves.
While family members may need a little space to “pull themselves together,” they may need to be checked on and encouraged to rejoin the gathering when possible.
Fifth, it is a powerful step in moving the family forward when gathered around the table – or gathered to say grace before the meal is served – to make overt what is on the hearts and minds of everyone present.
It could be as simple as, “Today, as we ask the blessing, all of us are aware our beloved______ is not here. However, they would be proud we are together loving and supporting each other.” Or it could be a guided table talk about “what is your favorite memory of __________.”
Sharing stories that point to the person’s influence and humor is another way of helping everyone in the room take a small step back toward joyful living again. It also is a type of personal thanksgiving for the influence and life of the person.
Sixth, realize that grief is different for all and the adjustment to a world where the loved one is no longer present cannot be measured by a clock or a calendar. Grief is, for most, a slow walk.
Now for the discouragements.
First, do not express impatience with anyone who is struggling. This is especially true if the loss is within six months of the holidays.
When my father died in early November 1982, it was scarcely two weeks before Thanksgiving. However, we all showed up.
It was a two-year losing battle with cancer followed by Dad’s death, but everyone made it for Thanksgiving and, as I remember it, it was one of the most grace-filled gatherings of our family.
Second, don’t rebuke members of the family for their tears or their struggle.
This is not the time to tell folks to “man up,” or whatever one might think to say that basically rebukes a person for their grief. It is also not helpful to belittle someone because they are not as emotionally controlled as you are.
Third, don’t trivialize the loss.
We often attempt to manage our grief by saying, “Well, they were old,” or “They lived a long life,” or “They couldn’t get well,” or “They are in a better place.”
While all of that may be true, it attempts to stifle grief and the reality of the loss. Fundamentally, grief is about how survivors transition to a world where someone they loved is no longer present.
Our personal beliefs about life after death can make a heart less anxious, but it does not remove the absence, the empty bed, the empty chair, the empty seat at the table.
Fourth, don’t speak for God.
God is good about speaking through Scripture and prayer, so let God do the work.
Stick to what you know and stay on point by speaking about the God of all comfort, the God who sees us, the God who cares, the God who makes a way in the worst of times and the best of times.
Fifth, introduce some flexibility and realism into your view of how long it should take another person to move on with their lives.
As a counselor, I work with people who suffer from complex grief, but those clients represent a small number of patients. Most folks adjust to loss over time.
Sixth, understand that circumstances around hospitalizations because of COVID-19 have stripped away some of the connection and care we were used to providing for a loved one who was dying in the hospital.
We don’t know the full ramifications of what that will mean in moving through grief. My professional opinion is that grief will be more difficult for some.
What can you do this holiday season?
Show up, listen up, practice patience and empathy. If you do that, it will be enough.
A private practice counselor working with veterans and survivors of trauma, he recently relocated to Round Rock, Texas, to be closer to family. Previously, Chancellor served four churches in Texas for 33 years, then ran a Mental Health Department of Alan B. Polunsky Maximum Security prison which houses death row.