In 2014 I found myself in the midst of a divorce after 10 years of marriage, and I moved home to Walla Walla, Washington, with my 1-year-old daughter. It felt as if my life and potentially my career were over.
The next few months were a blur as I hustled to make life work. I took a few teaching jobs and a part-time chaplaincy position while trying to keep myself and a baby alive. My house plants, alas, did not survive. The holidays were fast approaching, and I was struck with a sense of overwhelming dread. In the thick of my grief, I could not muster the emotional fortitude to put up a Christmas tree. I just could not.
Along with my extended family, my daughter and I went to the Oregon coast that year for Christmas. It was my first Christmas after my divorce, and I thought it might feel good to do something different. It did not. I slept in the bathroom on an air mattress. Nothing is like being exiled to the bathroom to sleep on a pool floaty to remind you that you have hit rock bottom. I remember bursting into tears partway through a family board game. The emotions were so raw.
Life, on a good day, can feel nearly impossible for even the most resilient among us. Throw in frenzied shopping, a few Christmas pageants, a fruitcake, and a lot of expectations, and many of us are hanging on by a very thin piece of tinsel. Pile on grief, loss, loneliness, isolation, and/or mental health challenges, and the holidays can feel especially brutal.
Early on in my divorce journey I said to a friend sarcastically, “At least when someone dies, you get a casserole!” What I really wanted to say was that I wished somebody—anybody—would say something. Anything. Risk sticking their foot in their mouth, and acknowledging the pain that I felt.
The next morning as I was leaving for work, I nearly tripped over a cottage cheese loaf on my front porch. Attached was a note that said: “We love you. We see you. We are here for you.” To be honest, I’m not sure what the note said. That is what I remember. And it wasn’t about the cottage cheese loaf. OK, it was a little bit about the cottage cheese loaf. But it was mostly that someone had witnessed my pain and acknowledged it.
Perhaps this Christmas you are experiencing grief or isolation more acutely for the first time. Perhaps this is the first year without your spouse and you can’t bear to face Christmas without them. Or maybe you are experiencing infertility, and the holiday is yet another reminder that your hopes for a child are unrealized.
Perhaps a marriage or relationship ended, and though there is some relief, there is still so much grief. Maybe a loved one received a terminal diagnosis, so this Christmas feels harder, and the stakes seem impossibly high. Or maybe the faith that once felt so strong is now shaky and less certain.
COVID-19 has only compounded the feelings of loneliness, grief, and isolation. Nobody tells you that the isolation and loneliness that accompany grief are often more painful than the grief itself.
As if the primary loss is not enough, all the collateral losses that go along with it are excruciating. The loss of a relationship, the loss of a dream, the loss of a family, the loss of friendships. The absence of people you thought would be in your life forever who suddenly don’t know what to do with your pain.
The grief that surrounds the Christmas story is not so different from our own. Mary and Joseph must have felt it acutely. Secrecy, shame, misunderstanding, the inability to explain themselves to anyone. Their story is complicated and solitary. Yet this is where the Incarnation takes place.
What I find so compelling in the Christmas story and in my own story is that there is hope in solidarity. Life is more bearable when we bear it together. Maybe in order to become more Christlike, we have to become more human in the best possible ways.
And what I found in the dark night of my own grief is that people showed up. Friends got me out of the house, paid for meals, texted me, or listened to my anger and sadness. And my own grief enabled me to show up for others in ways that would not have otherwise occurred to me. This is the double-edged sword of suffering, the beauty and pain of becoming more human. The breaking open of a life, the process of being born again, and again and again.
If you find yourself in a season of grief, what might it look like to care well for yourself this holiday? Here are a few things to try:
Take inventory. To manage the anxiety and anticipatory grief that accompany the holidays, I suggest making a list of what you think you might need in order to survive the holidays. It could look like more togetherness. But sometimes it is a paring down of expectations. It may look like doing something completely different or keeping things very simple. It may mean having open conversations and setting boundaries with family and friends.
Try something new or continue a tradition.
Beginning new traditions may feel good to you as you navigate the holidays. Or you might continue a tradition, such as gathering the family to make the triple ginger cookies that your mom baked every year.
Pay attention to your feelings. Get some rest. Even small tasks may feel impossible when you are in survival mode. Notice your feelings and respond accordingly.
Be kind to yourself. If you find yourself crying into the batter of your triple ginger cookies, or you hear a song and have to pull your car over to the side of the road for a good cry, remember it’s OK. Grief is not linear, and there are no shortcuts. Be compassionate with yourself.
When presented with other people’s pain, we are confronted with our own and discover we are ill-equipped to deal with our own grief, much less the grief of others. Despite our misgivings, what might it look like to offer solidarity to someone who is grieving this holiday?
Help in tangible ways. It may mean being specific about how you can help rather than telling them to reach out if they need anything. In my experience it is better “to do” rather than “to ask.” Translation: Bring the casserole.
Offer space for processing. It may look like taking them to lunch and allowing them to process their grief. Or acknowledging their pain without judgment, trite answers, or spiritual clichés.
Feel your feelings. Be aware of the emotions that come up for you as you offer this level of support. We are often affected by the suffering of others, so be listening to your inner monologue.
Be compassionate with yourself. If you find yourself a complete wreck after listening to a friend talk about the death of her husband, remember to be compassionate with yourself; this is hard.
In the book of Matthew we find Isaiah’s prophecy saying: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matt. 1:23, KJV).
The coming of Immanuel is how God engages with our grief, trauma, fear, and loneliness. Humanity is the gift we received more than 2,000 years ago. With this gift He deemed Christmas a celebration not just for the merry and bright, but also for those who are lonely, grieving, and in their darkest hours.
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, rejected by His own people. He risked Himself in order to remind us that we are not alone, because we belong to Him. And in doing so, He shows us how to belong to each other.
The second Christmas, post-divorce, I set up my faux, pre-lit Christmas tree, and because my living room light was broken and a little light felt good to me, I kept it up through February. The light of hope felt a bit more tangible as I felt myself slowly rising out of the rubble. What I found to be true in my darkest hours and is true for me today— there is hope in solidarity.