In the shops, it’s all “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” but every time Margaret hears the words, she wants to cry. She’s going about her everyday Advent errands, dutifully buying gifts and wrapping paper and cards; but, “I feel like there’s a barrier between me and everybody else,” she says. “Like I’m seeing them through some kind of blurry lens.” The reason for that distance? “My husband died in September,” Margaret replies. “I just can’t synch up. I feel sad in the middle of so many people being happy. When I do forget for a moment, when I feel even the smallest joy, I immediately feel guilty for not thinking about Daniel.”
Margaret’s story isn’t unique. No matter when we lose people we love, the first Christmas without them is bound to be painful. And that pain isn’t reserved for death: the sadness of the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, missing a faraway friend, fearing for a loved one in the throes of a major illness or addiction… the list goes on and on, for there are myriad events and situations that leave us feeling grief-stricken and therefore inadequate at Christmastime.
My childhood Christmases were shadowed by a death in my own family. When I was two years old, my sister Adele was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that has effective treatments today but very few then. She was born in October and died a few days before Christmas, and my mother never fully grieved—or recovered. All through my growing-up years, she sat and watched the rest of us trim the tree, never joining in because it made her so sad. I understand the depth of her pain, but I think she never really understood what its expression did to the rest of us.
I can’t think that God wanted our Christmases to be dismal, or for Margaret’s to be guilt-ridden. But how else can you cope with overwhelming grief when the world tells you to be merry?
If you Google words like “Catholic” and “grief” and “Christmas,” you’ll find some extremely sensible suggestions for practical ways of getting through—asking others for help, honoring missing loved ones, taking time for oneself. If you are grieving this year, I urge you to read them—especially, perhaps, these 64 tips. But the reality is that nearly all these approaches are strategic in nature, offering guidelines for how to manage grief during the holidays. And of course that’s necessary: we all need ways of coping with the various feelings, situations, people, and memories that can exacerbate sorrow during Advent and Christmas.
But the real need is for something beyond coping strategies. As many people who have moved through grief and sadness have learned, one great comfort is in storytelling; grief loves stories, because it is resistant to logic and linear thinking, but wraps itself lovingly around a narrative. It’s why we take comfort in telling stories about those we have lost.
Advent and Christmas are just filled with holy narratives. What can they tell us about handling grief?
The first thing they say is we’re not alone. In the most difficult places on our path, spaces of sanctuary are waiting for us. Pregnant, unmarried, and alone, Mary is in a perilous state after Gabriel departs; she has said the most luminous and yet most perilous “yes” that humankind can say. What does she do next? She goes in search of someone who can help. She goes to her cousin Elizabeth, who welcomes Mary and offers her safety, blessing, and sanctuary (Luke 1:39-45). Where are places—and people—who represent sanctuary in your life? Can you turn to them now?
The second thing we learn from the Scripture story is to open ourselves to the unexpected. Joseph was in terrible grief when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. His whole future was shattered. Not only marriage but divorce was now in his path. He must have felt sick at heart, numb, empty. And what happens? Joseph falls asleep and God speaks to him in his dream (Matthew 1:20-21; 2:13, 19-20, 22). When God wants to convey something to us, he frequently uses unexpected methods: dreams, stories, metaphors, intuition, poetry, art. God often manifests in our peripheral vision. Are there places where you might be able to discern him now?
Finally, Scripture tells us that incarnation begins in darkness. The country was occupied and its people enslaved, and this is where God chose to be born. God comes to us in the darkness that Advent begins to pierce, and promises we shall see a great light. When we are in pain and grief, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path, that is precisely where God meets us. His first priority is not to do away with the dark—but to be present to us in it. Comfort my people, Isaiah cries, and “I will give you treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45:3). Can you look for God’s presence, not beyond your pain, but within it?
This is not the end of God’s story, and it isn’t the end of your story, either. The way you feel this Advent and Christmas is not the way you will always feel. As difficult as it is to imagine in these painful moments, there will be holidays when lightness returns to you. There will be holidays when you can celebrate with memory rather than grief.
But in the meantime, take God’s Word to heart. You are not alone. Stay open to the unexpected. Sit with God in the darkness. Christmas is coming.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir