Handling Grief at the Holidays

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The holidays can be a rough time for families who are grieving or dealing with sickness, injury, or financial hardship. Here are some ideas on how to reach out to them.

It’s now been three years since my mother-in-law lost her battle with cancer. She passed away about a week before Christmas. It was a weird Christmas that year. I hope I learned something from it.

This post was originally posted on December 23, 2008. May it be an encouragement to those who are struggling this season as well as a motivation to those who can help.

A Different Kind of Christmas

This past week my eyes are opened to the realization that for some people Christmas will not be so merry. For our family, we are grieving the loss of someone we loved very much.

We spent several Christmases with my mother-in-law, and now, everywhere I turn something reminds me of her.

  • A brightly colored sweater that would look great on her.
  • The gingerbread house kits that she always enjoyed getting for the kids.
  • A funny thing that one of the kids says or does that I know she would chuckle at. I can almost hear her laughter.

Christmas is not quite as merry this year.

And all of a sudden, I see that we are not the only ones. There are families, maybe you, maybe your neighbor, who are struggling with job losses, overwhelming debts, illness, separation, imprisonment, or death.

It’s been so easy for me in my little cave to go about my business, to plan all sorts of entertainments for my children, and not to think about what other people are experiencing. 

And now my eyes are opening a little more.

There are those out there for whom Christmas will not be so merry.

– the family who lost their daughter just days before her fifth birthday.
– the woman whose husband is deployed and living a life of danger so that we may be free.
– the couple pursuing adoption whose birth mother changes her mind after they’ve already welcomed a new son into their home and into their hearts.
– the dad who is struggling to make ends meet yet fears the layoffs.

These are real scenarios. Real people.

And Christmas will be different this year.

I mention this as a gentle reminder for myself and for you to think about what we can do to bring comfort to others who might not be having so merry a Christmas. Consider one of these small acts of kindness to perform this week and then again next month when the excitement has died down but the troubles perhaps have not.

  • Call and talk. Find out how they are doing. Don’t be afraid of their sadness. Walk alongside them.
  • Extend an invitation to dinner. It may feel awkward at first. But be real. Be a friend.
  • Take them a meal so that they can have a night off cooking. Food doesn’t solve life’s problems, but it is a comfort.
  • Offer to watch the kids so the couple can have a date, or so the single parent can have a little down time.

These ideas are just a start.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

— Matthew 25:34-36

What else can we do for those who grieve or struggle?

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  1. Offering an ear to listen….really listen to what they are going through, what they may need…..just being there and letting them know they are not alone.

    1. Please, talk. So many do not want to even mention my husband who went home to the Lord. I need to talk about him, remember him, with others. It helps so much when others comment about him, tell stories about him. We who are grieving need people who will talk about our loved ones, or just listen to us. Thanks for your comment.

      1. Oh, my heart hurts for you. Talking helps me, too. May you find listening ears and voices who share. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. My mom died a week before Christmas 14 years ago after a sudden illness, leaving her 5 kids between the ages of 7 and 15. As the oldest, I found comfort in helping to make the holiday somewhat normal for the youngest. We had so much support in that way. Families that invited us along for activities, took us shopping, baked with us. 14 years later I still remember all of those kind acts. Now the holidays for me are a time when I can be close to my mom and teach my 2 young kids all about grandma by sharing the holiday music she loved and baking the treats she used to make with me:)

    1. What an inspiring story. That had to have been so hard. Yet, it sounds like God worked good fruit in you. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. We lost my mother-in-law last year a week before christmas. It was sudden and completely unexpected. She was not ill. This christmas is about helping my children, husband and father-in-law deal with the grief. Last Christmas was a blur with travel and funeral arrangements. Trying to do things for others definitely helps, we are not the only ones grieving…
    Thank you for your post.

  4. Thank you for posting this. We lost our third child to miscarriage on Dec.1. It has been a difficult time, and although some people have attempted to reach out, we’re finding that most people just don’t know what to say or do.
    I would add that those who pray should not be afraid to tell the grieving family that they are praying for them. Ultimately, I think this is the best we can ever do for someone, and these reminders and promises of prayers have been the most comforting and reassuring.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss. We experienced three miscarriages, so in a small way, I can imagine what you’re going through. Blessings to you and yours. And thanks for offering such a great suggestion. I think when we know specifically how we are being prayed for it helps us to hope in that request all the more.

    2. Keowdie,
      Please please know that your family is in my prayers. Tuesday will be 3 yrs since we lost our 2nd son to a “late” miscarriage. We still did the big family Christmas trip that year even though I had been in the hospital just a few days before – it was challenging, but was right for our family. I definitely agree that assurances of prayer were very comforting. I also found that I just really needed people to be understanding – as vague as that sounds. What I mean is that at some moments I was quite content to participate in putting ornaments on my mother-in-law’s tree, but then I would maybe get a bit overwhelmed. The simple act of everyone’s just allowing me to either participate in or excuse myself from the traditional family activities, or my sister-in-law’s just remaining with me as I started to cry and listening to me talk about my grief, meant a great deal to me. These comments are all really great suggestions. I will be praying for all of you dealing with losses. Blessings to you all.

      1. Thanks for sharing your story, Jennifer. I look back on my miscarriages and am amazed how God used them. Praying that the same will be true for you.

  5. My church offers a “blue christmas” service every year for those who find this season less than merry. I’ve been comforted by this tradition and I know others have as well.

    While I’m blessed I not had a loss at Christmas, the year my mom died was doubly hard at Christmastime. I agree that prays and listening to whatever the person is saying helps so much.

  6. It hurts so much that I can relate to this post … my mom passed away suddenly 12/07/2011. It’s difficult, decorating the tree and realizing that this ornament or that was from her, hearing a song that I can hear her humming along to … it breaks my heart but only because it’s all to new (and really, HOW can this be??) … I’ve actually told people NOT to ask how I’m doing as it makes me cry. I’m trying to deal with it but it’s hard. Thanks for the words of encouragement and recommendations from all the comments.

  7. I can so relate to a different sort of Christmas. Three years ago we were living with my parents celebrating what we adults knew would be my father’s last Christmas. He had terminal cancer and passed away a few days after Valentine’s Day. Just this past Thursday my husband got a phone call as he was pulling into his office. It was from a family friend. His mother had been hit by a pick up truck and they were transferring her to the Trauma Unit. In a blink of an eye our plans for Christmas changed. They became suspended in time. We did not know what would happen. She is currently critical but has made it through two surgeries. Having a crisis at Christmas though has helped me to put the true meaning of Christmas first, it is not the food or the gifts or even family it is after all called CHRIST MAss

    1. Amen. I hope your mother-in-law shows marked improvement over the next few days. Blessings to you and yours.

  8. If the family home schools, Home School Legal Defense has a fund for widows that provides funds for them to help with Christmas. My sister was blessed many years by this fund after husband passed away. Check with your churches, etc to see if they have a similar fund.

  9. What a great post! The hustle and bustle of Christmas seems to revolve around shopping, gifts and seeing every family member that you can in 2 days. But there are a lot of people missing some of those family members. 2011 has been an especially tough year for my family. Last Christmas was spent in the hospital at my mother in law’s bedside as she was losing a battle with a brain tumor. She was unresponsive, basically in a coma. She passed away January 11th. Then just yesterday my grandpa passed away after a long two weeks of ups and downs and now my family is planning his service. My mother in law loved Christmas more than anything. I have many decorations that she made or gave me that remind me of her daily. I really appreciate when people just let me know that they’re thinking of us during this time, when they tell me how they loved the family member that is no longer with us, how they’re praying for us. I’m not sure it will get any easier but I’m thankful that God is faithful and we will be reunited someday.

    1. Blessing to you and yours! Thank you for adding your experience. It has gotten easier for us, but I don’t know if that is a universal experience.

  10. Thank you for this post and your sweet concern. Christmas was always difficult for me growing up and now that I have my own family, my parents choose to keep their distance. My husband’s parents died suddenly a year after we married. We’ve never had “family” holidays. I struggle with bitterness and jealousy over others and it eclipses the joy I could be nurturing with my 4 kids.

    1. My husband’s childhood Christmases were full of sad memories due to divorce and poverty. And he married a Christmas freak. A mentor encouraged him to redeem Christmas many years ago and to find ways that made it special for him and to create new traditions for our family. He said that really helped him. And I see the fruit of it.

      Blessings to you this year. May you and your peeps find/create your own traditions this year.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this since you posted it yesterday. My Mom’s brother died in early November and her mother passed in February. She’s not doing so well and I’ve been trying to talk to my older son about being kind to Grandma right now.

    My father’s mother died on December 23 the year he was 16. He was the oldest of 8 children and she died in childbirth at the age of 36. I didn’t know she had died so close to Christmas until I was a teenager and it’s taken me another 20 years or so to fully process how difficult this time of year must be for him. It explains so much about how he was about Christmas during my childhood. I wish I’d had more knowledge about the situation and been better able to understand when I was younger but I think that kind of thing comes with age.

    1. So much “comes with age,” doesn’t it? Funny how that is. But, what a blessing that you’re more cognizant now of how to minister to your parents. Blessings!

  12. Thank you so much for this post. My mother-in-law is living in her last days here on earth before she joins God in heaven. She, too, has been battling terminal cancer. We are praying that she will enjoy Christmas; however, things are looking great right now. I agree that dealing with her illness right here at the holidays opens my eyes to other people hurting at Christmas. Your post was a God-send. I needed to understand that other people are feeling our pain right now. Thank you.

  13. My mother-in-law passed away 12-24-06. My son had just turned 1 and my niece and nephew were 7 and 4. It was really hard to explain to them why Grandma went to heaven on Christmas Eve. We had learned just a few week earlier that she had bone cancer. She was given 6 weeks without treatment or 6 months with treatment. She was taking treatment but lost the battle in just over 2 weeks. It was hard on my husband and sister-in-law. They had lost their dad suddenly (he had a massive heart attack at age 34) at ages 12 and 10.

  14. This is a hard time of yer for us too. My grandmother was born 12/4 and passed 12/16/98. My grandfather passed 11/20. My mom’s birthday is 11/17 but she passed 4/22/10 after being sick more than half my life. My childhood was not the happiest. The best thing people can do is understand that for some the season is filled with mixed emotions and not expect that all celebrate the same way. It’s always felt melancholy for me and sometimes bittersweet. Having a young child helps. I cry more this time of year than any other and sometimes I don’t even know why. And if we do open up, sometimes a hug or an I’m sorry is perfect. Merry Christmas to you, Jessica.

    1. I meant my grandfather passed 11/20/06. Didn’t want to give the impression it just happened.

  15. Thank you for a lovely post. My Father passed away on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week – many, many years ago. Thanksgiving was never a “big” holiday for us after his passing. It was always nice when friends invited us to their family celebrations. And, over the years, we also enjoyed the restaurant buffets some places offered (Thank you to all those servers out there who work the holiday!)

    I think sometimes a certain holiday is just different for some of us because of a major loss – and always will be.