The Cross Above the Manger: Coping with Grief and Loss Over the Holidays
By Kevin Burke, LSW
Christmas can be a magical time, especially when enjoying the season through the eyes of children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. However alongside the lights and festivities, the joy and wonder of this special time, many can quietly struggle with a sense of grief and loss.
You don’t have to be an Ebenezer Scrooge to recognize that the expectations for an idealized Hallmark Christmas fail to match up to the complex realities, the uncertainty and fear that are part of many of our lives.
The death of a friend or family member, loved ones serving in the military, divorce and relationship challenges, illness and unemployment, or the loss of a beloved pet, can cast a long shadow on our holiday celebrations.
Holidays can magnify any painful experiences of family dysfunction from the past and the fallout from those difficult times can linger and impact current family celebrations.
Those ministering in the abortion healing ministries know that this time of year, the focus on the Christ Child and the joy of children at Christmas can surface feelings of regret and sadness about a past abortion loss (or losses.) We remember the son, daughter, grandchild, brother, sister, niece or nephew who will never share in the wonder of the season.
This repressed grief associated with abortion and other losses can contribute to substance abuse, anxiety, depression and a sense of melancholy. You may find yourself pulling away from social situations or keeping hyper-busy and distracted, immersed in the hustle and bustle of the season.
If we can slow down the Holiday rush for a few minutes, we may discover something important in the deeper meaning of this great feast. We may be able to make some peace with our pain and loss in the context of the Christmas story.
As the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus unfolds, before the choir of angels sings to the Shepherds in the fields, we see the first reaction of Mary and Joseph upon learning of their unique vocation and calling from God – fear.
As the Angel Gabriel encounters Mary and Joseph, he responds to the anxiety in their hearts. It is a message to all who are suffering and struggling this time of year:
“Do not be afraid Mary…do not be afraid Joseph…”
They are overwhelmed with the massive changes being unleashed in their lives and are naturally afraid.
This touches upon the mystery in the lives of the Holy Family, and in our own stories. Alongside the joy of the incarnation and the birth of the Christ, as the choirs of angels sing, and wise-men and shepherds follow that brilliant star – there is the looming threat of murderous political persecution, exile from family and friends, and in time, the rejection and crucifixion of the Christ Child in the manger.
Fr. Bernhard Speringer shares:
…the Cross above the Manger is more than a mere decoration…The birth and death of Jesus Christ, the Manger and the Cross, belong together indissolubly. God became man in order to die for us as man. God was born in Bethlehem in order to be able to lay down his life on Golgotha out of love for men! Thus the Manger and the Cross form a union. Both the Manger and the Cross are for us the revelation of God’s love.
Some Coping Strategies for the Holidays
– Lower your expectations and the expectations of other. Our commercialized culture puts great pressure on families this time of year. Avoid those things that take you away from focusing on the deeper meaning of this great feast.
– Give yourself permission, especially if you are struggling with your own grief and loss, to avoid or at least limit certain situations that will drain you emotionally and spiritually. Instead do things that will feed your soul and be healthy for your body, mind and spirit.
– At Holiday gatherings, avoid those conversation topics and encounters that will feed into conflict and stress you out. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to avoid getting pulled into any old toxic dynamics and exchanges and let the peace of the Christ Child reign in your heart.
– If you have a friend or relative who is going through a tough time or had a rough year, try and make some time to be with them. Above all give the gift of listening with love and acknowledge their losses. Embrace them with love and assure them of your continued support.
– If you know a friend or loved one who was impacted by an abortion loss and they have shared this with you in the past, check in with them to see how they are doing. Share a recovery resource or contact information for an abortion healing program in your area. It really is the best Christmas gift you could offer them.
– Exercise daily as your health allows. It’s very challenging to do this at first if you are grieving or struggling with depression. Start with something simple and build on the positive results. A daily walk and simple stretching have been proven to be very effective medicine for anxiety and depression. If you need additional support ask a friend, family physician, or your pastor for a counselor referral. Avoid the over use of alcohol or other drugs or behaviors to avoid your feelings and find relief of your pain and grief.
– Spend time each day in quiet prayer with God. Ask the Lord to help you avoid both isolation but also over-business as ways of coping with your pain. Open your heart to the Spirit and ask for consolation, strength and the peace to accept the will of God in your life. Unite your suffering with that of the Holy Family and pray that the grace from your simple sacrifice may touch someone you love who is in need of God’s mercy.
– Make a resolution to get involved in services and activities at your local church. Pray for discernment to see if God is calling you to reach out with the love of Christ to the homebound, prisoners, the homeless, the unborn, and children in need. Ask your pastor or local charity how you can best serve.
Finally I want to share a music video of a Christmas song I wrote called “The Promise.” You may find it speaks to you if you are hurting this time of year. Please note that while it reveals the joy and wonder of the season, it is graphic at times and intense in its depictions of the mystery of the incarnation. I pray it will touch your heart with the great love and mercy that God has for you, his precious son or daughter. Have a blessed Christmas and New Year. [Music recorded and produced by Henry Gennaria.]