Why Grieving People Dread The Holidays
And How You Can Help

An interview with Nancy Guthrie,
co-host of Surviving the Holidays

What makes “surviving the holidays” so difficult for grieving people?

They are reminded that holiday traditions are family celebrations

“A lot of people avoid taking family pictures for a while after someone in the family has died because of this.”

Well, holidays are family time in our culture. And the holidays are so filled with traditions that we have shared with people we love over the years. The holidays generally include family getting together, oftentimes around a table. Except in the midst of grief, someone is missing from that picture. There’s an empty place at the table where that person sat. When you go to take a family picture, it doesn’t feel right anymore. A lot of people avoid taking family pictures for a while after someone in the family has died because of this.

Everywhere you turn on the holidays there are reminders that it doesn’t feel right anymore. For example, many families have a box that they pull out every year filled with Christmas ornaments. Those ornaments represent experiences, times in their lives, that are now a painful reminder of what was.

What are some of the common mistakes people make when trying to comfort a grieving person during the holidays?

They make a couple of mistaken assumptions. First, they make an assumption that grieving people need us to do or say something that fixes this, rather than understanding that grieving people need us to enter into the pain of it, and the questions inherent in it, and the sense of emptiness in it.

Second, and connected to that, would be the assumption that grieving people need to be cheered up—that in some way sadness is an “enemy.” That would be true only if sadness serves no purpose, and perhaps that sadness is somehow a denial of the gospel’s reality.

“…sadness is a very appropriate response to loss in life.”

In fact, sadness is a very appropriate response to loss in life. Sadness is not an enemy. Nor are tears. In fact, I really think of tears as a tool God uses to wash over—to help wash away—the deep hurts that life in this world brings. Tears aren’t necessarily a denial of faith. I think when we look in the Psalms, we are given divine words to pray back to God, and the Psalms are filled with tears. It makes sense that living in a world where we lose things and people we love, we will experience sadness—even profound sadness.

What can we say to a grieving person when we see him or her at church or in other holiday gatherings? Those can often be awkward moments.

Well, the first thing we usually say—the thing that I catch myself saying all the time—is the question “How are you?” We say it because we want to communicate that we care and that we want to hear about that person. What we need to understand is that sometimes that question is heard as a demand for a report. We don’t mean it that way, but sometimes it lands that way. And if we put ourselves in his or her shoes, it might help us to understand what it’s like to be called upon for an answer to that question. Maybe the truth is, “I’m crying all the time, and I feel hopeless of ever feeling better.” But do you know many people who want to give that kind of report, especially in the hallway of church?

And so, grieving people tend to say something like: “Fine.” “Good.” “Better.” So avoid posing a question that might sound like you want to hear: “I’m not grieving anymore. I’m all better.” Ask a more creative question—something as simple as “What’s your grief like these days?” Or, “Are there certain times of the day, or perhaps certain days of the week, that are really hard for you not having Bob here?” Such questions are better because they presuppose the person will be dealing with grief for a while. Those types of questions invite the grieving person to talk openly about what form his or her grief is currently taking. They show sensitivity and an openness to really hear something significant rather than merely inviting them to give a “good” progress report.

How can the meaning of Christmas give hope to a grieving person?

They can reflect more deeply on the meaning of Christ’s incarnation

Well, Jesus was sent into this world and became one of us. He experienced what it’s like to live in this world. I think about when Jesus got the news that John the Baptist had died. He understands the deep grief of losing someone He loved! Jesus also personally understands what it’s like to face death. But more significantly for grieving people, this is an opportunity for them to reflect in a deeper way what all this means for us: Jesus coming into this world to begin to set things right and ultimately to bring in the new creation.

“Many people feel like the way they’ve always done holidays is written in stone.”

When grieving people have that sense of what Christmas is all about, they can celebrate the holiday in a way that perhaps they never had before. Jesus came into this world and took death upon Himself to conquer it. Even while still feeling a great deal of sorrow, there can be a new sense of joy because there’s a deeper understanding and a deeper longing—a deeper longing for what Jesus began when He came the first time and will bring to full fruition when He comes a second time. Christmas means hope has entered into the world so that one day death will be abolished for good! This could mean more now than it ever did before.

What else might help grieving people survive the holidays?

“New traditions don’t have to erase the treasured moments of the past…”

They can start new traditions to reflect a renewed hope in Christ

I think this could also be a reason to start new holiday traditions. Many people feel like the way they’ve always done holidays is written in stone. I think it’s great to come alongside grieving people and just raise the possibility that maybe they don’t have to do things the way they have always done them. New traditions don’t have to erase the treasured moments of the past; they merely shed a new light on the hope we share in Christ.

Could your church do more to help grieving people this holiday season?

Consider offering a GriefShare: Surviving the Holidays seminar at your church. It’s not too late to schedule an event! Learn more here.

About Nancy

Nancy Guthrie is the co-host of GriefShare Surviving the Holidays. Nancy and her husband, David, have a twenty-something son, Matt, and have had two children, a daughter, Hope, and a son, Gabriel, who were born with a rare genetic disorder called Zellweger Syndrome and each lived six months.

Since then, Nancy has continued to write books that reflect her compassion for hurting people and her passion for applying God's Word to real life. Her desire to grow in her understanding of God's Word has prompted her to pursue graduate work in theological studies. She and her husband, David, host weekend Respite Retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child.