So many of you sent messages and wondered how we were handling the Holidays. We made it through our first Thanksgiving without Anna just fine. I’m so thankful for all of you who prayed for us and sent well wishes. The day went along as most every Thanksgiving has but for some reason facing the holidays after a loss is just hard. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, there just seems to be a general feeling of dread and lack of motivation at best, to a desperate desire to run away, at worst. And despite knowing and believing and understanding that this life is not our final destination, sometimes the sadness comes. And somehow the sadness and the grief have a work to do in us. My very wise friend reminded me that Jesus and Mary knew grief intimately. In scripture Jesus weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus and of course Mary had many sorrows in her lifetime including the brutal beating and mocking and murdering of her child. Grief has a purpose in our salvation and I know this is true even if I can’t say exactly what that purpose is. It’s like the voice calling in my wilderness, “prepare the way for the Lord”. Grief has changed me.
But I also think grief has its place and sometimes needs to be kept in check. Advent, for example, should be a time of preparation and excitement for the birth of our savior. His birth is the beginning of the very reason we can overcome grief in the first place! In grieving, as in most things in life, moderation is the order of the day. Not only is it exhausting and draining but I’ve got living to do!
This isn’t my usual type of post but perhaps some of my experience can be useful to others this Christmas. Even if you are not working through your own loss maybe you know someone who is. I know the process of grieving is different for everyone so I’m not suggesting one right or wrong way to do it – only seeking to share the strategies I try and use all the time. I often hear in grief advice that ‘you should be gentle with yourself’ at holiday time. Well I’m not even really sure what that means but I don’t find it to be helpful advice. If anything I think the opposite is more true. Being ‘gentle’ with myself would likely lead to a whole lot of wallowing in my own pain and pity. I find I have to be a little more stern with myself. I have to work, sometimes pretty hard, to choose living Joyfully. I’ve gotten the response from fellow grievers, “well I do try but it’s hard”. Yes it’s hard but so is being run by your sadness. And there is a lot at stake if I can’t overcome it. The one thing I hope to teach my children is how to choose to live Joyfully despite difficult and sad circumstances. I pray I can show them that example. Joy is a choice we can make, through any kind of circumstance, because we know the Truth. We should “always be prepared to give a reason for our Hope” and Jesus gives us His Joy so that our Joy may be complete. (Jn 15:11) By His resurrection He has overcome the world and we are called to do the same. Heaven and eternity await so we can’t really afford to waste an undue amount of time on sadness. Not a single one of us is called to a life of grieving. Some of us have that cross to carry but we have to carry it forward through living to Joy and not stuck buried under the weight of it.
So here’s what I do
1) Focus on the present moment. This may be a little easier for me than others because with many small children in the house I am pretty busy. Even if I wanted to, I don’t have the luxury of letting my frame of mind interrupt my duties. My family needs to be fed and washed and dressed. The house needs to get cleaned etc. etc. Not only is it unfruitful to allow myself to dwell in the past but it is entirely unfair to my children that are here before me. I have a job and a vocation to carry out and God promised all I need to do it. I believe that. I rely on that. And once the basics are taken care of there is always a long list of extras and holiday preparations that I can focus on. I Ask myself what I can do to live instead of grieve right this minute.
2) Take captive every thought. Yes it is easy and natural to focus on what we did in Christmases past. I can’t help but remember the last time Mikey helped Daddy get the tree and that no one in our house was ever more excited for Christmas than Anna. These are normal thoughts and good memories. At another time of year they might bring a smile or peace but right now they bring a serious blanket of sadness down upon me. I will take those thoughts as they come and put them away for a later time. It is not easy to do! I rely on prayers and grace because it requires a conscious act of my will to take the memories captive and decide to not think about them and replace them with thoughts that are more productive and easier to bear right now. The focus and the goal are to prepare and make a nice Christmas for my family that is here with me. So define your goal and deal with thoughts accordingly.
3) Power through and suck it up. There will be many things I do that I simply don’t want to. I will do them anyway. Most moms know when we are taking shortcuts and not doing the best job we can do with our kids or husbands or household and there are repercussions to that. I try and be as honest with myself as I can be and ask, “Will I feel better about doing this or not doing this?” Some things however are nonessential. For me this Christmas it looks like this: I will not feel the least bit bad if I skip making cookies. The kids are busy and won’t miss it enough that it will impact our tradition. Getting and decorating a tree however is non-negotiable. I will force myself to go through the motions of that even though I don’t want to at all. Not doing it would be sad for my kids but worse for me for having let them down.
4) Accept the change to my family. One of the most difficult things for me to do this year was take a family photo. The last thing I want to do is send a Christmas card without Anna in it. I had just gotten used to sending one without Michael and now everything in me rebels about sending one without Anna too! I want to send a card with all my children in the photo. I really really really do. It is a challenge to truly accept that my family is now different. Taking that photo was a good idea and a good exercise in accepting that my family is missing someone. It will always feel like that I think but I can accept it. Accepting it will make it easier going forward. They will never be out of our mind or our heart but the reality is they will never again be in our family photo. I don’t like it but I accept it.
5) Make a decision right now to not be sad. Be determined about it. You may be surprised about how well you are able to pull yourself out of your same old rut. I choose on this day, in this moment, to be happy. I don’t necessarily ‘feel’ like it but I will ‘fake it ’til I make it’ and have an amazingly better day than if I didn’t force a smile on my face. There is always something to laugh or smile about and it’s amazing how the outward expression can transform the inner feelings.
6) Count my blessings. I have so many things everyday that I am thankful for. By focusing on them and actually counting them – out loud – it leaves little room to lament my losses.
7) Praise God. I wrote a post about praising here and I want to tell you it is foolproof! Try it. Play some Christian music that praises God and sing along and focus on the words and the God who holds the universe in the palm of his hand. He is holding you too. Praising Him is a gift that he gives us because it can change us from the inside out.
8) Do something new and different this year. My sister was feeling bad that she never decorated Anna’s door last Christmas as she had planned. She decided to do it this year for the other kids and they loved it. It felt great to do something different that was not connected to Christmas past or to Anna. We’ve made a brand new memory and hopefully a new tradition.
9) Do not be a victim or feel sorry for myself. I am not defined by what I’ve lost but rather by what I’ve been given and who I am as a child of God. I will banish any thoughts of ‘whoa is me’ and ‘it’s not fair’. That gets me exactly nowhere. If those thoughts surface I immediately take them captive and count my blessings instead.
10) Practice being mentally strong. I read this great article that went viral this past week. I realized there are many similarities with the strategies I use for grieving.
All of this being said, there is always a place to remember our loss and our loved one and to let grief do a work in us. There will be times when there is so much sadness you can’t even look at this list. When that happens I pray for grace and ask Jesus to help me right where I am. “Lord help me to want to overcome this sadness right now.” If that doesn’t work I try asking, “Jesus, please help me to want to want to overcome this sadness”.
Finally I am usually heartened to remember that no matter what – if I allow God to work – I will only get better.