Dealing with Grief At Christmas

DeAnne Appleton, REBUILD Grief Support Leader | December 1, 2022

Everything about that first year after we lost our youngest son, Phil, to cancer was laden with effort; our first birthdays without him, his first birthday, and the first Thanksgiving. I could hardly get out of bed, much less plan for any of these events that used to bring such warmth, laughter, and joy into our home. Yet, here was Christmas staring at us, and we couldn’t avoid it. As we had been reminded in the Rebuild workshop we had just completed, the only way out of this celebration was to go through it.

I sat in my quiet time chair, which had turned into my grief chair, and asked God for His heart of compassion to cover and guide me. He gave me permission to weep, as He surely had done when His son died, so…I wept. Echoes of past Christmases swirled around me, and as I wept I acknowledged the multiple layers of loss that Phil’s death had brought us.  We didn’t just lose Phil; we lost the child whose job was to put the angel on the top of the Christmas tree…I intentionally grieved that loss. We lost the child who made his guacamole recipe for our Christmas dinner…I intentionally grieved that loss. We lost the child who read the Christmas Story from Luke 2…I intentionally grieved that loss. We lost the child who would laugh with abandon at the clues Lance (his dad) would create that would lead him to his Christmas gift…I really grieved hard over that loss. 

For a woman who was called, “a cheerful stoic” by her children, I was so weary of the grief. But, as we were reminded in Rebuild, trying to skirt grief only leads to more grief down the road. With a sigh, I pulled out the Rebuild curriculum and leafed through its content. Out of all the tools that Rebuild had given us to navigate our grief, I looked for a tool that I could utilize to help us face this first Christmas without Phil.

I had just utilized one of the tools in my grief chair, as I named and grieved the layers of loss due to Phil’s death, and that grieving had settled my soul enough to look toward the next step. This time, I chose the tool titled, “Be Open to Detours.” My daughter joined me, and we talked through how to adjust the traditions that we had enjoyed for the 28 years we had Phil. We wept through our discussion, deciding that we weren’t ready to acquire new traditions just yet, and we determined the activities we should avoid doing simply because it would inspire too much grief. This led to an acknowledgment of what we could continue doing, knowing there would be tears shed in the doing of those things, but also knowing they were things that defined Christmas Day for all five members of our family. While it isn’t clear, the Bible seems to indicate that there are times when those in Heaven are given a peek into what is happening on earth*, so we chose traditions that would bring all of us a glimmer of joy on a day we knew would be hard for the four of us who still walked the earth. *See Hebrews 12:1Luke 9:30-31Luke 15:10

This year, we are facing the third Christmas without Phil. The conversation, still laced with grief, has started on how we should spend the day. Phil’s death broke us; there is no doubt about that. We all are much different people than we were before then. It has been a turbulent two-and-a-half years filled with intentional grief work, wrestling with God, and, at times, wrestling with each other. But the honesty, humility, and authenticity that has been birthed through all of it is laying a different foundation as we rebuild the gift of the family that God has entrusted to the broken pieces we have become. I am truly grateful and join in the chorus of billions of Christ followers, both living and dead, who affirm the joy of the resurrection, only made possible because of the birth of Jesus.

The next session of Rebuild begins March 1, 2023. Please visit willowcreek.org/rebuild at the beginning of 2023 for further information.

For more on how people in Heaven may have insight into what’s happening on earth, see this article: https://www.epm.org/blog/2021/Jul/19/loved-ones-heaven-see

Read next: Not so Merry: Christmas with Depression.

For more practical ways to deal with mental health issues, and stories of others who have been there too, go here for our full list of resources.

Curious what God thinks about mental health? See the article by a Willow Creek campus pastor and professor of theology.