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Holiday Heartache

When you've lost a loved one, Christmas can seem like the most miserable time of the year. Here's how one family found peace in the midst of their grief.

I watch as the snow falls, forming a blanket of white on the green grass. It's November and the holidays are almost here. While I used to look forward to this time of year, I now fight mixed emotions. Empty places at our table serve as painful reminders of what took place two years ago, when my mother and 3-year-old niece, Ali, were killed in a car accident. Every day since their deaths has had its own struggles, but the holidays are heartwrenching.

Unpacking decorations is overwhelming because each trimming evokes another memory. Christmas carols trigger tears. Gifts given and gifts received feel empty and meaningless. What used to be "the most wonderful time of the year" is now almost unbearable. Instead of reveling in the warmth of the season, all I can think is, Let's just get this over with.

Christmas was my mom's favorite holiday and she loved to be with her family sharing special traditions. Mom's favorite tradition took place on Christmas Eve, when she would bake a birthday cake for Jesus and explain to all her grandchildren the symbolism of each layer and what each decoration represented (see sidebar). It was Mom's hope that her grandchildren know the true meaning of Christmas. But our first year without her was too difficult, so Jesus' birthday cake went unmade.

It's unfortunate that grief sometimes sends us spinning inward and away from those who truly care about us, including God. But in the midst of my grief, God reminded me that my children were suffering, too. They missed their grandmother and cousin and all the festivities our family was accustomed to. I needed to help them do what my mom tried to do?focus on God's love for us and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It certainly hasn't been easy, but in his grace God has guided us through two painful holiday seasons and allowed my family to feel the joy and peace of his presence.

When your family suffers a loss, the holiday season can reopen emotional wounds you thought had healed. Our family discovered several coping strategies that allowed us to celebrate Jesus' birth in the midst of our grief.

Taking Time Out

Grieving is a long process that needs time and attention. My mom and niece died on March 10, 1999. When summer arrived I found myself trying to "busy away" my grief. I continued my duties as director of Vacation Bible School, which took up valuable family time. Looking back, I wish I had taken a lesser role and made more family time to allow for rest and opportunities to talk about how we were feeling.

When I was able to quiet myself, I picked up a children's book that was given to me called What Happened When Grandma Died by Peggy Barker (Concordia). The book centers on what we leave behind in this world?our bodies, our home, and our life?and what God promises to give us?a new body, a new home in heaven, and a new, wonderful life. The book is helpful regardless of whom a child has lost. I read it with my kids and found that we all had a better understanding of death.

Another Strategy I tried was to spend time alone with each child. As the holidays approached, we took walks, went sledding, and stopped for hot chocolate. Sometimes we just played a board game together. I found that lying down with my kids before bed with the lights off was an opportune time for intimate conversation. By slowing down and taking time for each other, we found tremendous comfort and strength.

Seeking Outside Help

I found that our family needed additional help dealing with our loss. Everyone in our extended family was grieving, too, so we simply couldn't turn only to each other. We sought out adult support groups that deal with loss and grieving. Hospice offers a program of support and resources for families that have experienced a death. (Your local hospital can help you find a Hospice program in your area.) There's no shame in asking for help, even months after your loss. Keep in mind, too, that everyone grieves in a different way and at a different pace. You might discover that you have to find different kinds of help for each member of your family.

My children attended a four-day bereavement camp through Hospice. Not only did they learn how to deal with grief in healthy ways, they learned that they're not alone in their pain. Children tend to think that no one can relate to what they're feeling, and as a result, they have a difficult time talking about it. When your whole family is grieving, you might not have the emotional resources to pick up on your children's need to talk. A counselor, a pastor, or an adult friend can provide the listening ear your child needs.

Starting New Traditions

Because the holidays bring so many reminders of the past, children may have a greater desire to talk about their sorrow during this time. By incorporating a tradition that will help them honor the memory of a loved one, you are encouraging them to be open with their feelings. You're giving them the message that your loved one will never be forgotten.

In the book Holiday Help by Darcie D. Simms and Sherry L. Williams (Accord), you'll find many holiday memorial traditions your family can adopt. One memorial uses five votive candles that are placed inside a wreath that lies flat on a table. The candles represent grief, courage, memories, love, and hope. As you light each candle, speak openly about your loved one. For example, "This candle represents our grief. The pain of losing you is intense. It reminds us of the depth of our love for you." Encourage everyone to participate. This tradition will change through the years and reveal how God heals deep wounds over time.

If there is one golden rule that can get you through the holidays after losing a loved one, it's this: Allow God to comfort you, and lean on him for strength. Last December marked the second Christmas without my mother and niece. This time I made a birthday cake for Jesus. Of all our family traditions, I believe this one is the most significant. As I looked around the table at Mom's grandchildren singing the familiar birthday song, I blinked away a tear. Carrying out this celebration of Christ helped me remember that Mom and Ali are at the biggest celebration of all.

See the recipe for Grandma's Birthday Cake for Jesus ?

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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