Navigating the Holidays After Significant Loss

As we approach the season where major holidays are typically anticipated and joyfully celebrated by families and loved ones, this time of year can hold deep sadness and even a sense of dread for those who have recently lost a loved one. Homes once bustling with the laughter of family gatherings and the enjoyment of special festivities may seem too painful to bare, especially if this is a year of “firsts,” for those experiencing significant loss. How do you enter into the holidays without being swallowed up in overwhelming grief? How can you join in family gatherings when the absence of your loved one seems deafening and when all you can think of is that “he or she” is no longer with you?

There is no doubt that the holiday season can trigger tremendous sadness, pain and loneliness over the loss of a spouse, child, sibling or significant loved one. Yet, our God of compassion has provided not only powerful words of truth to comfort you but He has also provided Himself so that you can not simply “survive” but even “thrive” in this challenging time in a way that is healing, strengthening and restorative and that will enable you to keep moving forward in the good purposes and plans He has for you.

Here are just a few suggestions in helping to navigate the holidays for those experiencing recent loss:

  •         Expect the pain and don’t deny or avoid the sadness. Instead, take advantage of God’s divine invitation to come to Him with your sorrow and grief. He understands and cares deeply when you hurt. He not only gives you permission but also encourages you to pour your heart out to Him, as often as you need. You can trust Him with your deepest pain and sadness.

“Trust in him at all times, O people, pour out your heart before him; for God is our refuge.” Psalm 62:8

“With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD. I pour my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.” Psalm 142:1-2

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16

In their book on grieving, authors Wolfelt and Maloney even recommend setting aside a time each day, even if only a few minutes after waking, for purposeful mourning. This opportunity to release your emotions to the Lord at the start of your day and acknowledging your need of Him can be very healing and restorative.

  •          Make time to refresh yourself in God’s Word and to meet with Him. During times of loss, the holidays can provide a chance for specific focus:

o   Thanksgiving: Find meaningful and creative ways to express your gratitude for who God is in His unchanging attributes, for His various promises throughout Scripture, for all you posses in Christ, for the myriad blessings He has already and continues to pour out on you. Read and meditate through Psalms and other Scriptures that exalt God/Christ, His Word and His works (Ex.15:1-18, 1 Chron. 16:7-36, Job 37-41, Ps. 19, 103, 118, 134-136, 145, Is. 40:12-31, Dan. 2:19-23, Rom. 8:31-39, Col. 1:15-20,).

o   Christmas: What is the true meaning of Christmas? Find fresh ways to celebrate Christ’s birth and the reason for His coming. Rehearse the wonder of God incarnate, the promised Savior sent to the world as a gift to all mankind by reading through or listening to the various gospel narratives. Focus on different characters involved in Christ’s birth and put yourself in their shoes. What can you learn from each one? (the shepherds, angels, Mary, Joseph, inn keepers, etc.)

o   New Years: Revel in all that’s ahead as God’s child: His continued sanctifying work in your life, making you more and more like His Son  (Rom. 8:28-29, 1 Cor. 3:18); your future hope (seeing/being in God’s/Christ’s presence for eternity, reunited with loved ones, new heaven, new earth, new home, new body, an incorruptible inheritance, no more tears, suffering, sorrow or loss, etc.).

“My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word! My soul melts away with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant.” Psalm 119:25, 28, 76

  •        Pursue meaningful relationships and don’t isolate. It’s tempting to withdraw and pull back from friends and loved ones during times of intense grief and sorrow but that will only increase your sense of loneliness. Engage with those closest to you and allow them to walk with you in your grief. Our Savior modeled this when He invited Peter, James and John to share in His moment of deepest anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest and crucifixion (Mt. 26:37-38). He was transparent with these intimate friends and let them know, “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death.”  God created us for relationship. Allow others to help carry your burden, to know how you are struggling and to extend God’s comfort to you as you choose to show up.  

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

  •          Plan ahead and be prepared.  If this holiday season is a “first” without your loved one, it can seem overwhelming. Seek God’s help in what you’d like a specific holiday to look like. What traditions are important to continue? What tasks can you forego to alleviate unnecessary stress? You don’t have to do everything and you don’t have to do what has always been done. You may choose to honor your loved one in some way or plan for a special time to share memories together. You may find it helpful to brainstorm in advance with family or loved ones to help create new and meaningful traditions at upcoming holiday gatherings.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19

  •        Find someone to love and serve during the holiday season. Deep sorrow and loss can be all consuming. Your world has been turned upside-down and it’s easy to lose sight of everything and everyone around you, even extended family and friends impacted by the loss. One of the best ways to break out of this dark pit is to reach out to others. Plan lunch out with a son or daughter, have a cookie bake or a game/movie night with grandchildren, invite someone for coffee, visit a shut-in who needs encouragement and fellowship, serve at a soup kitchen, help prepare meals at your church’s holiday community event or join those Christmas caroling at the senior center. The opportunities are endless for reaching out to family and others who need comfort and tangible expressions of love this holiday season. Once again, our Lord sets the example as we see Jesus Christ serving His disciples by washing their feet at a time when it would have been easy for Him to focus on His own pain and imminent suffering the night before His crucifixion. What a great passage to meditate on as the Son of God “laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet.” (Jn.13:4-5)

These are just a few of the many ways in which you can “gracefully” navigate the holidays ahead if you have experienced significant loss. Allow the “God of all comfort” to comfort you during this difficult time. Let His presence and His Word strengthen and sustain you in the days ahead as you trust Him to be all you need this holiday season.

If you find yourself struggling through loss this holiday season please reach out to us at Cornerstone Counseling Ministries. We would be honored to walk through this journey with you individually or through one of our support groups. Be sure to check out our Surviving the Holidays events taking place this November.


Written by Helen VanSumeren, M.A.