Christmas is something I really look forward to these days, but it wasn’t always that way. For many years I felt a sense of dread and despair whenever I even thought about family occasions like Christmas Day.
If Christmas is a joyful time for you, that’s wonderful! I’m sharing the poem, below, to give you a glimpse into the mind of a grieving person. After reading the poem, perhaps you’ll be more aware of the intense, confusing sort of pain that Christmas can bring. At the end of the post I’ve included a few tips on how to reach out to a grieving friend (look for points 3 and 4).
If you and/or your family are struggling with despair this Christmas, my heart goes out to you. It’s my hope that you’ll feel less alone as you read my poem and story:
I’m already dreading the day
And it’s only July!
I hate the way
Christmas makes me cry.
The family day
Of love and belonging,
When I am reminded
Of my heart’s longing
For siblings who love me,
Who know me and care,
For two parents
Who are always there
No matter what.
But the only assurance I can see
Is that this day will be confusing for me:
Which house will it be this year?
With Mum or Dad?
She’ll be strained, he’ll be sad.
It’s the tension I can’t bear.
Everyone tries to make the best of it –
For this I am truly glad,
But the silent grief and sorrow
Linger loudly in the air.
In an atmosphere tense and stale,
Each of us wrestles
With grief overwhelming,
Trying to make a day worth remembering.
Not this day. Not for me.
This day signals regret,
It brazenly broadcasts loss and estrangement
From “family”. Oh, God, help me!
© Kristy Johnston, July 2003
Looking back, I’m amazed at the attractive tinsel-thread of redemption that God has weaved through all the branches of my family tree. He truly has bestowed a crown of beauty in place of the ashes of our family’s collective grief (Isaiah 61:3). It’s taken decades — it didn’t happen overnight, unfortunately! — but it has happened.
Both my parents have remarried and we’ve now got a blended extended family that’s pleasantly functional. We all get along OK when we meet at family gatherings, and we’ve even begun to enjoy our Christmas celebrations together, with all the partners and kids. Quite an entourage we’ve got these days! (We’re in our thirties and forties now, my generation of the family.)
But at the time I wrote this poem, in 2003, family life was far from pleasant. I had a strained relationship with every single member of my family, which was terribly painful for me as we’d been such a close-knit bunch in my childhood. How times had changed for us all…
During my teenage years, our family went through a period of major crisis. No-one escaped unharmed. Each person’s brokenness led them towards certain actions, and these actions cut the rest of us like shards of shrapnel — it’s amazing how one person’s distress can cause such harm to those around them. And then the lot of us toppled like dominoes. My way of coping was to become hyper-responsible: I didn’t want to cause my mother any more grief than she’d already endured.
In my early twenties I struggled with major depression and anxiety. I didn’t reach out for help at the time because I didn’t even have a name for what I was experiencing! Thankfully, a few years later, I started treatment with a trained clinical counsellor. She skillfully worked through my past traumas and guided me towards emotional healing — that didn’t happen overnight either, but it did happened, slowly, over the years!
Lord Jesus, I want to thank you for being my Good Shepherd. You never gave up on me through those gut-wrenching years. You listened to every hoarse sob — you even heard the unspoken prayers that were too profoundly muddled for words. Your heart broke with mine. You have always been strong, and faithful, and trustworthy. You have never failed me.
Lord, please bring comfort to those readers who are mourning today. Fill them with an assurance of your never-ending love for them. Fill them with hope for the future, as they come to you weary and heavy-burdened. Lead them to people who are able to help them heal, emotionally, and grow, spiritually. I ask these things for your glory. Amen
How can I help you grow?
1. Comfort from God’s Word
A bunch of Bible passages were a lifeboat to me through those difficult years. Here are some of them:
- Isaiah 41:9-10, NIV.
- Psalm 34:18.
- Matt 11:28-30
- Romans 5:3-5
- Romans 8:18-38
- Hebrews 4:14-16
- Hebrews 12:1-3
- Rev 21:1-4
Joseph’s story from Genesis, Chapters 37-50 has also been a great source of comfort to me. This Bible story has been made into a Dreamworks animated movie called “Joseph, King of Dreams”, which is quite an accurate and compelling rendition of the Bible story. You can watch a song from the film here — terribly soppy, but it still makes me weep happy-sad tears almost every time I listen. If you’re due for a therapeutic cry, have a listen!
2. Song playlists
Here’s a playlist of songs that are like prayers, for those times when you just don’t know how to pray:
And the Hope & Courage playlist has some of my favourite worship songs, for those times when you need some spiritual fuel to help you persevere:
3. Ideas for reaching out to a grieving friend
After reading this post, perhaps you’ll be prompted to reach out to someone you know this week, in a small and personal way: Sending a text message. Sending a card. Picking up the phone.
Here are a couple of tips, for those of you who want to help but are not feeling particularly confident or equipped to do so.
You don’t need to try and delve into their problems.
Some situations are so tangled up that attempting to fix them can end up making things worse — it can pull the knot even tighter, like when my kids try to undo their own shoelaces! Reaching out is much less daunting than you might imagine: you just need to show that you care. Often, profound words of comfort aren’t even needed at all.
Consider inviting them for a family meal.
I remember one birthday, when my parents and siblings were still in crisis, a friend of mine invited me over to her place. We hung out, ate a meal together with her parents and siblings, and they had a birthday cake prepared for me. (Gah! Still makes me tear up, all these years later!)
They didn’t engage me in deep conversation about my struggles. They didn’t try to take my family situation on and fix things. They didn’t even quote any Bible verses at me, even though they were a devout Christian family.
They just invited me for a simple meal. And sang happy birthday to me. And got me to blow out the candles and cut the cake. So simple, but a subtle gesture of empathy that I’ll never forget.
It’s not as hard as you might think! I hope this has inspired you with a sense that you are in fact able to bring comfort to others.
Of course, if you are struggling to keep your own head above water, this year might not be the time for you to try helping others. But if you’re in a relatively calm place in your life, I encourage you to reach out to someone in your church community (or neighborhood) who could do with a taste of that precious family-type love in the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Want to learn how to be a more empathetic friend? Here are four excellent Christian articles about how (not!) to help a grieving friend.
- How to Discourage Suffering Friends and What Suffering People Wish You Would Do at Christmas, by Vaneetha Rendall.
- What Grieving People Wish You Knew at Christmas and What Not to Ask Someone Suffering, by Nancy Guthrie.
Need help in taking your own grief to Jesus?
- I wrote a post earlier this year, called Groaning: How to Take Your Grief to Jesus, which might be a helpful read for you. There’s also a downloadable Bible study and activity booklet that goes along with it.
- Vaneetha Rendall wrote a post about her own experience of grief. A couple of years ago, it was a game-changer for me — something clicked deep inside my soul when I read it. I found Vaneetha’s words deeply moving and reassuring. I hope they comfort you too: The Loneliness of Suffering.