For those who can’t be here: Coping with grief during the Advent/Christmas season

By Father Raymond Tyohemba

The title of this article, borrowed from the heartfelt performance of “For Those Who Can’t Be Here” by the Duchess of Cambridge and Tom Walker at the 2021 “Royal Carols: Together at Christmas” event, resonates deeply with me. It’s not because I had a personal connection with the Duke of Edinburgh, but because I understand firsthand how challenging the holiday season can be for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one or a significant relationship.

As the Advent season brings us closer to the joyful celebration of Christmas with bright decorations and merry carols in December, those who are dealing with grief may find themselves surrounded by a different kind of darkness – one that constantly reminds them of the absence of their loved ones. The empty seats at the dinner table, the once-joyful decorations now devoid of meaning and the memories of past holidays spent together can all weigh heavily on the heart. This can trigger a complex mix of emotions, including deep sadness, loneliness, emptiness and dread. Often these emotions can intensify grief, leading to common symptoms such as sleep disturbances, decreased energy, increased fatigue, irritability, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and a sense of feeling lost or helpless. “Since losing my mom,” one woman expressed, I’ve been overwhelmed by the Christmas cheer all around me. There’s no store, radio station or gathering where I can find solace.”

For many people, including myself, grief can feel incredibly isolating. Yet no two people grieve the same way. Your journey through it will have its own unique twists and turns. As C.S. Lewis said, “Grief is like a long, winding valley, where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” There is no set timeline or way to heal, as everyone’s experience is different. It’s important to remember that the way you grieve is your own, and it’s OK if it doesn’t match someone else’s.

However, we can gain valuable insight from the experiences of shepherds in the ancient Near East, where shepherding was often a perilous job, typically undertaken by those considered expendable, with the constant danger of defending their flocks from wild animals and thieves, even risking their lives in the process. The shepherds in the Gospel story, far from the serene depictions in Christmas movies, lived a life of vigilance, always listening to the night, prepared for danger to emerge from the darkness. That night near Bethlehem, an angel’s reassuring words pierced the darkness with “Fear not!” as they received the news of Jesus’ birth, embarking on a journey into the unknown night.

Grieving during Advent can feel a lot like the part of the Christmas story where danger is lurking in the darkness. While most people are singing carols and decorating Christmas trees, those who are grieving are anticipating a Christmas without their loved one and dreading its arrival. The feeling of isolation can be overwhelming and make it seem as though grief has no place near celebrations, Advent services or even Christ Himself. However, the story of the shepherds proves to us that God believes the opposite. An angel found the shepherds at night, and an invitation to meet Jesus was offered to the fearful, the outcast, the expendable. After the angel left, the shepherds traveled through the night to meet their Savior. The danger was still there, the fear still lurking, but they took steps that led them closer to Christ. If you are grieving this Advent, embrace what the shepherds have taught us and what the candles we use to light the season help us remember.

Peace comes from knowing that God can still find us, even in the midst of our darkest nights. Steadfast love is displayed by a God who saw humanity’s suffering and chose to experience it firsthand. Joy can show up unexpectedly, not in the form of happiness, but with gratitude that our grief is seen and felt by God. On Christmas, hope was born into flesh in the form of a baby whose life, death and resurrection would bring life to all. Grief does not disqualify us from Advent; grief can highlight what Advent is about.

May I suggest that during Advent through Christmas, remember to be gentle with yourself. Don’t push yourself too hard to be in a festive mood. Take care of your physical health by eating well, limiting alcohol, staying active and getting enough rest. Surround yourself with supportive friends who let you talk about your feelings, cry or even enjoy yourself when you can. Choose which holiday traditions you want to continue and add new ones that feel meaningful. Don’t be afraid to mention your loved one who has passed away, as it’s part of the healing process. Spend time looking at old family photos or videos together and consider creating simple rituals to express your grief and emotions. 

Father Raymond Tyohemba is the chaplain at Mission Bay Hospital.