I write today from the experience of losing my husband to cancer in December of 2010. Seven years later, my sons and I are still filled with gratitude for the church – both our local church family and our wider family of brothers and sisters in Christ – who have ministered to us with such tender love and care. I thank my God every time I remember you. (Philippians 1:3)
The American holiday season, stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, can mean many things to many people, but most of us would likely agree: the holidays are intense. Everything is amped up – crowds, traffic, long lines; parties, performances, services, year-end projects; overspending, overeating, overstimulation. The healthiest of families can get stressed and cranky, but for grieving families restructured by death or divorce, the additional weight of crushing loss can make this season almost too much to bear.
During the holidays, the church must take special care of its broken and grieving families.
Ministering to the hurting was one of the central concerns of Jesus’ ministry, and it should be central to ours as well:
“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all who mourn; to comfort them that mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for heaviness…” (Isaiah 61:1-3)
Pray. This is the most essential and effective help we can give. Pray for the family to feel the gift of Jesus more powerfully than ever. Christmas is above all the celebration that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” no matter what has happened in a person’s life (John 1:5). Pray especially to be led by the ever-creative Holy Spirit, to be sensitive to the need and to be inspired as you respond. No one can fix the situation or heal the hurt; healing is Jesus’ role. But we can “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Armed with prayer, lean in to the hurting family:
Keep it practical. Think about how Jesus ministered. He spent time with people. He fed them. He ate with them. Grieving people often feel overwhelmed by the simple tasks of daily life, and when we meet the needs they cannot meet for themselves, they feel the love of Christ through His church.
When my husband died the first week of December, our sons were nine, twelve, and thirteen years old. At the time, it was important to me that Christmas be as “normal” as possible. My friends baked and shopped for me and with me. My husband’s best friends took my boys to buy presents for me, just as my husband would have done. At lunchtime on Christmas Eve, some teenaged friends from church came and took my boys out to lunch so I could take care of last minute items in peace. Years later, the holiday help continues. Over the years I have had help with everything from assembling a drum set at midnight Christmas Eve to shopping for a bow-and-arrow. These are things I could have done just fine by myself; the blessing for me as a widow has been that I didn’t have to.
So much has changed for a grieving family; keep things normal where you can. Send the Christmas card, even if your friend is grieving the loss of a child that is the same age as your healthy one. You cannot remind a grieving person of their loss because they never for a moment forget. If you would have invited them to your Christmas party before the loss, invite them still, but don’t expect them to come or not to come. (One suggestion: do take changes in marital status into account when you address the envelope. Don’t address a card to Mr. and Mrs. if Mrs. has left the home.)
Do not judge. People experience grief in very personal ways. Each person in the same family will respond to the loss differently. You can offer help, but you cannot decide for someone else what he or she needs. If the family appears to happily participate in Christmas as usual, then be glad that they are able. If they avoid social gatherings and church altogether, try to stay connected through the simple things like taking walks or having coffee.
A word about attending church: for families who have experienced a fundamental and permanent change, worship can be very painful. This, too, is a loss. The empty chair or spot on the pew is a visual representation of that gaping absence. Yes, a grieving family needs to be in church, but it’s hard. There are things we can do to help them be there. Offer to go with the family, or sit in the back together and help them facilitate a quick exit. Offer to come by the house and listen to the sermon online together, so that they can experience fellowship in a private place where they do not feel exposed. People in intense mourning often struggle with crowds, and Christmas services tend to stir both emotions and memories, so helping the family navigate church without being overwhelmed can be such a gift. Being sensitive to the fact that church can be difficult will likely help the altered family reintegrate into the community more comfortably.
Be unoffendable. Do not burden a grieving family with your expectations. If no one replies to your text or thanks you for your gift, that does not mean your kindness was not felt or appreciated. (We Christians need to adopt this mindset anyway, and this is a great place to start.) A person in grief should not have to worry about being polite, and the comfort you offer isn’t about you anyway.
Acknowledge the loss. This is especially true if a loved one has died. Most (not all!) grieving people love to hear their loved one’s name. Share a happy story or write a letter about that lost one. We have friends who make annual donations in my husband’s honor, and every year a friend places an evergreen cross on my front door on the anniversary of his death. Remembering him is a profound gesture of love to those of us who miss him every day.
Don’t forget: The loss will still be there in January, that bleakest and most anticlimactic time of the year. Sometimes a person in mourning can gear up for the times they expect to be hard, like the holidays, but it is often the unanticipated moments when the loss hits hardest. Let the consistent and persistent friendship of Christ to you be your example, for months and years to come.