“Christmas time is here….” Sing that in F major with a backdrop of animated snow falling and my mind instantly begins to replay scenes from A Charlie Brown Christmas. That song, written for the timeless TV special, goes on to say, "Happiness and cheer, fun for all that children call their favorite time of year.” I beg to differ. Presuming it is a joyous, season-of-choice for all is truly a stretch. For some, Christmas is an especially challenging time.
Charlie Brown speaks for many of us in the opening scene when he says, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel…. I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees, and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” Linus, his otherwise sensitive sidekick, makes it all the worse by chiding him for being a downer. His response to Charlie Brown’s lament is, “You’re the only person I know that can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
The fact is, it is entirely normal to have mixed emotions through the holidays—or even to feel overwhelmed by sadness. The season inevitably puts a spotlight on uninvited loss. I vividly remember my first Christmas as a single parent. It was all I could do to put a smile on my face. I felt ambushed by grief. Last year was a different story of loss. My daughter was married in September. She and her groom chose to spend their first Christmas with the in-laws. Granted, I had volunteered to be flexible, and we enjoyed dedicated time together for celebrating. Nevertheless, Christmas Day had another inescapable hole in it for me. This year will be my first without my mom. We’re still in the midst of reinventing what family time looks like in her absence. The sorrow over my last parent’s passing will naturally be a part of my holiday. Grief is really not the problem. The problem is learning to make peace with the loss of life as I knew it.
Grief comes in another form as life turns the corner into parenting adults. The season also inevitably puts a spotlight on unwelcome change. While moving forward is still the goal, the kids’ handmade ornaments with school pictures pasted inside popsicle frames always trigger a moment where my longing for what once was overtakes my gratitude for what is. The reality is that our college students are not as likely to be home for the family cookie bake or drinking eggnog while we decorate the tree. They are unlikely to want to wear matching jammies on Christmas morning or sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. Even if you have all your family gathered, a deep sense of loss that things are, well, different, can bring on its own kind of grief.
Our shop-eat-celebrate culture makes it worse. We feel pressured to do it all rather than simplify for sanity. It’s easy to feel like Charlie Brown when Lucy tells him to go find a great, big, shiny, aluminum Christmas tree—the biggest one he can find and preferably painted pink. Patty pipes in with, “Do something right for once, Charlie Brown.” He comes home with the sorriest looking tree left for the taking. It is a much better reflection of how he’s feeling. Of course the gang makes sure he feels worse for his choice.
“Good grief!” is Charlie Brown’s favorite way to say he’s bummed out, dismayed, depressed, or some other mostly negative emotion. But seriously, can grief ever be good? I believe it can. Even during the holidays.
Emotions are a signal. Healthy fear can save a life by triggering our fight or flight mechanism. Righteous anger inspires activism. Compassion over others’ losses motivates us to care for them. Good grief also moves us to action. At a point of deep devastation, a wise counselor encouraged me to grieve well. To move through it meant I needed to allow myself to feel it. At holiday time, embracing my disappointments instead of stuffing my sorrows meant that I could share what I needed to navigate through the celebrations, too.
Grief Share, a national network of grief support groups, publishes a holiday survival guide that offers practical tips for polishing our approach to this shiny season when we are feeling rather dull. Here’s a few of their tips, with grief, loss, and inevitable change in mind:
- Have a family conversation. Involve your children—even if they are adults. Don’t try to pretend that everything is the same—or should be. Acknowledge change and give yourself a chance to try something new. Make decisions together that honor what each person needs to adjust—and what they need to stay the same. Agree on how you can remember and honor the ones not there in a way that meets needs for you or others.
- Have a plan. True, things won’t always go according to plan, but thinking through what activities and traditions will look like this year will help you expect things to be different rather than be surprised by it. Reserve the right to change your mind. Hold invitations loosely. Have an exit plan when you are a guest and need a break.
- Recognize that emotions will likely ambush you. Something will inevitably remind you of what was and is no more. Accept the emotions and talk about them if you can. Practice what to say if people ask how you are. “I’m in progress,” is a totally appropriate answer if you aren’t ready to share or they aren’t fully ready to listen.
- Give yourself permission to simplify. Looking for a balance between meaningful and manageable may mean less is more when it comes to decorating, shopping, and holiday cooking. Instead of focusing on the perfect holiday, try reaching out to others who might need help to have one at all. Helping others helps us regain our perspective.
- Be intentional about prayer. Ask God to help you. “But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand.” —Psalm 10:14. He promises He will.
It’s incredibly important to recognize that good grief follows great love. A deep sense of loss only happens when there is something of value to lose. To mourn over the loss of the family that we were is to acknowledge that being a family is a genuine gift. To struggle with change is to demonstrate that there was something precious in what once was. To miss my mom intensely is to honor her importance in my life.
Christmas reminds us that because of God’s unfathomable love for us, Christ came to save us by suffering the greatest grief of all—and all for our good. Even Charlie Brown’s Christmas ends with a tender reading of Luke chapter two, where we hear that Christmas is about God’s deep and abiding love for us. We need that reminder most of all.