A gifted counselor once told me that the gap between expectation and reality is the place of grief. Any time life falls short of the Edenic longing in our hearts, we experience sorrow. It happens in simple, everyday ways. Perhaps we expect coworkers to accept us, but they exclude us. We grieve that tiny gap between expectation and reality.
From the time we’re toddlers, we begin learning how to live in the gap. It’s a corollary of The Fall — we were made for paradise, but we’re stuck in a broken world. Bit by bit we cope. We cry. We grapple and grow.
But what do we do when a moment of tragedy turns the gap into a crater? When the person who promised to love us forever falls in love with someone else? When death claims the lives of the most important people in our universe?
When I set out to write this article, I had no adequate answer to that question. After interviewing countless people, I realize there is no adequate answer. Ultimately, we cannot fix the problem of pain this side of eternity. But there is hope. There are strategies for soldiering on and clinging to faith. Here are some things I’ve learned from wiser people about facing Christmas after tragedy.
It helps to embrace new traditions.
After the death of her husband, one mom said, “I remember feeling unsure about what to expect for Christmas. But I knew that I wanted to make it special and different for the kids. I kept thinking that my husband would want us to be happy. I intentionally planned to spend Christmas away from our house. We rented a vacation home on the water and joined my sister’s family. That was a good decision for us.”
Immediately following his divorce, another man took his kids on a cross-country trip. “I needed to be present with my kids in a big way,” he said. “It’s crazy, but despite all the agony we were going through, my kids—now grown—still look back on that trip as our greatest adventure.”
Several people talked about downsizing their Christmas. In the words of one man: “During the two-and-a-half years following cancer crashing our party, we downsized our tree to what my wife good-naturedly called our Charlie Brown tree. After her passing I decided to let Charlie have his tree back, and I started my new tradition of laser lights. From unboxing to finish, it takes me one hour to decorate—my kind of tradition!”
Another woman shared that after losing their adult son to suicide, they didn’t have the heart to get out the decorations they had accumulated over the past 29 years. Instead, they bought a small, real tree, new lights, and simple ornaments. “Everyone helped decorate the tree,” she said. “It was a fun time, despite the huge tragedy we had just experienced.”
It’s comforting to commemorate lost loved ones.
Sometimes people avoid mentioning the names of those who have died in an effort to be sensitive to the grieving family. But the bereaved don’t want their loved ones forgotten; they want to celebrate their lives. One woman said that after the loss of her son, the most meaningful Christmas gift she received was an engraved locket with his picture.
Another woman commemorates her father by releasing balloons at his gravesite every Christmas Eve. For years her young children believed the balloons floated to their grandad, and they stuffed them with notes. A family who lost their wife/mom, makes her favorite drink every Christmas Eve and ends the night with a toast to her. These small moments are deeply significant celebrations of life and love.
There is no right way to grieve.
The most consistent theme was to be gracious with yourself. A man who has experienced both death and divorce said, “The first Christmas after the death of my sister, we just went through the motions. She and I were very close. We had our own inside jokes and looks, and it was just not there. As for my divorce, I can tell you it’s not far off from dealing with death. Divorce is a death of a relationship. My emotions were a little different because of the hurt that led to the divorce. I played no part in my sister’s death, so there was no bitterness involved. But with the divorce I obviously played an active role, so that changes the emotions. I would say, try to realize it’s gonna be an emotional ride. Holidays are tough for people who are alone for any reason. Don’t feel guilty about laughing and having fun, and don’t be discouraged about being sad or upset. I can tell you that eleven years after my sister’s death, it still feels like a rollercoaster sometimes.”
Another woman added, “Don’t feel like you have to go to all the Christmas parties if you don’t want to. People will understand. We all have responsibilities. Prioritize and do the first thing on the list. If that’s the only thing that gets done that day, so be it. It’s okay.”
Christ Understands When No One Else Can
Repeatedly people talked about the incredible ways God comforted them through the support of others, through GriefShare classes, and through Bible passages like 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, John 14:27, and Isaiah 41:10. I loved the way one man put it: “Each of us will handle loss in a different manner—some holding tightly to past traditions, others setting them aside to fit our situation. The important thing to remember is that we need to confront our grief within the ever-loving hands of God. Only Christ knows what we need as a survivor facing the holidays after loss.”
A Better Day is Coming
Around the time I was compiling notes for this article, admittedly with a heavy heart, I joined hundreds of you—my Grace family—for our all-campus night of worship. As we sang Another in the Fire by Hillsong, a single line gripped me:
And I can see the light in the darkness
As the darkness bows to Him
I can hear the roar in the heavens
As the space between wears thin
A picture filled my mind—an image of the space between heaven and earth wearing thin. Do you realize what that means? It means the gap is closing. The day is coming when we will bid this broken world farewell and rejoice with joy unspeakable. Dear reader, this Advent if you can rejoice for no other reason, rejoice for this: the space between wears thin.