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When you're too sad to celebrate Christmas this year.


When you're too sad to celebrate Christmas this year.

Christa Hesselink



For some of us, there’s a thick blanket spread out over December. It’s the kind that suffocates and darkens the twinkle of the season. We wish it wasn’t so, but it hangs heavy on so many of us- it’s impossible to ignore. 

Maybe you know what I'm talking about.

Maybe you are a patient in pain wondering if this is your last Christmas. Or over this past year,  you've lost someone, and the empty chair at the table reminds you of all the happy traditions that will never be again. Maybe your relationship seems so broken beyond hope of repair, everything about this season reminds you of better days. Perhaps you’re a mom with little ones that demand more than you have to give, and you are at the very end of your rope. Or you've lost your job and this month makes it particularly hard to feel joy.

Whatever the circumstance, you're facing the rest of December with dread and the sting of loss.

I've been there. Drowning in the dark instead of beaming with cheer.

Many years ago, I lost my only sibling, my brother Todd, in a tragic car accident. That first Christmas and the ones every since, have been difficult. It has certainly gotten much easier over time, but I know how difficult this season can be. I've also had other losses in my life, not as significant as the death of my brother, but they've they've still made this season a challenge all the same.

Ever felt this way?

 Sadness: those waves of grief that threaten to drown you, whether you’ve shed a tear or not. You’re desperate for joy but you’re convinced it will certainly pass over your house this year.

Anxiety: the kind that seems to strangle and keep you cemented in your tracks- you’re never really sure how severe the panic will get.

Loneliness:  that ache that shallows your breath and wearies your heart – you walk around like the living dead wondering if anyone really notices you at all.

Or perhaps it’s a combination of these three. For whatever reason, this season is a struggle.



Instead of sparkled bows and paper, we’re wrapped up in melancholy this season. Even if we feel this way the other eleven months of the year, feeling it in December stings and burns. July-melancholy is hard, but when it prickles us in December, it leaves us almost inconsolable.

I've broken down in public restrooms because, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" came on the radio and reminded me of good years gone forever. I've cried in my car because the Christmas card aisle reminded me of people no longer in my life. And I've sat by my Christmas tree feeling the deep ache of loss. 

This season has a way of turning up the volume on our deepest emotions. Joy can be at an all time high, but sadness can also be amplified.  

I'm going to share some things we can cling too when the weight of this season threatens to bury us - " 10 Reminders to Help us Cope this Christmas". 

Perhaps you can share this with someone who is having a difficult time with all-things-Christmas. 


1. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others.

Listen. We're talking about the big stuff of grief and loss here.  Even though it's uncomfortable and everyone, including yourself would rather have it disappear, it's important to let yourself feel it. It's messy and ugly, but it's normal and good, and important - don't stuff those feeling down because their hard and awkward. Be gentle with yourself and give others space too. Aren't we all  just trying to do our best?

2. Waves of grief will pummel you, but you won't drown.

I like to call them "grief-bursts"; those awful and unexpected waves of emotion. I once was unconsolable, crying in a restaurant bathroom- the whole thing took me by surprise. Something triggered me and the wave hit. Everything in me wanted to hold it back because I thought for sure it would drown me and I'd never come back the same.  Do you know what? That wave of grief did overwhelm me. It came AND THEN it went. Remember - the waves will come, but you will survive and come up for air every time.  Find some people around you that can act as "life guards" if you start to feel the current pulling you out and down to places that are beyond you.

3. Make a plan.

The truth is, the anticipation of things is always worse then the actual thing.  The lead up to that day or event that you're dreading is always harder than the moment itself - it's strange like that.  It helps to make a plan so that you can have a bit of control and know what to expect.  What will you do on that day? Do you need people around? Do you need to be alone? Do you need to make a new tradition, or preserve an old one? Do you need to mark a moment to honour your loss or loved one? Whatever you do - make a plan. It'll still be hard but a plan makes it all a bit more bearable.

4. "Those who mourn well, will live well."

This is by far one of the most important things I've ever learned.
Did you know that grief and mourning are different? Grief is the universal feelings associated with loss - sadness, anger, fear, anxiety - and everyone who experiences a loss of any kind has these sorts of feelings. But mourning is different.  Mourning is the outward expression of those grief feelings. It's the effort to "go public" with your grief, give expression to your feelings, and work to reconcile this loss into your life - the effort to create a "new normal".  

The way we mourn changes over time and is different for every person.

We need to find ways to give expression to our grief and loss. They can be large, significant gestures or small, private ones. Whatever it is, we must acknowledge our loss in meaningful ways.

For me, in the early days, the "outward expression" meant a lot of crying, journaling,  and talking it out with trusted friends. Today, there are far less tears but I'm still mourning. I still am bearing witness to my loss, and marking moments so that I can pay attention to my grief and remember.  If I don't, the grief I feel, even after all these years, will work its way into my life like a toxin and manifest itself in some pretty unhelpful ways. 

I want to live well.  And I know that only happens if I mourn well.

5. Do something to remember, honour, and mark moments.

Mourning looks different for everyone at every stage of creating a "new normal." On that first Christmas after my brother died, my family and I flew to Florida to try and forget about the holiday all together. It was all we could do to manage the pain.  It looked like "escape", but it was our way of telling ourselves and the world that Christmas would never be the same. 

Some years it's looked like a special toast at the dinner table, or lighting a candle. Other years it's been quietly reading letters, giving a donation to a charity, getting a tattoo (ya, that was a big one!), telling stories, or planting a tree.  It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it's an expression of the grief you feel.

For me, this Christmas, marking the moment looks like putting up special Christmas tree ornaments. The angel on the top of my tree carries a broken heart in her hands. It's subtle - no one looking at my tree would even know it - but I do. And I have a picture by my kitchen sink; it's of my brother and I as kids sitting in front of the Christmas tree. When I'm messing around in my kitchen, I see that picture and get in touch with the good memories of the past and the ache of missing him. 

It may seem counter-intuitive to intentionally mark moments since they have a way of conjuring up difficult emotions.



6. Slow down.

The body naturally depresses itself when our soul knows it needs attention.  Experiencing all the feelings of grief is big stuff. It's like we have a whole other job we need to attend too.  Give yourself permission to slow the pace of your life down in order that you can do the "grief work" your soul is requiring of you.  This season will demand hurry and busyness of you, but this can be a recipe for unhealthy denial of the hard emotions. Try to embrace a slower pace.

7. Hold tight to, "This too shall pass".

Change is the most predictable thing there is. Chances are you're reading this because your world has been rocked this year (and not in a good way), or you're here this December longing for things to change.  

But here's what I've been learning: life is always changing.  If I'm in a beautiful season of life, it will not always be this way, and if I'm in a hard season, it will eventually change as well.

When we've lost something or someone significant, life will never be the same, but we will not always be in the pit.  Honestly - this darkness will not always feel so dark. If we keep walking through the night, we will eventually see the sliver of sun on the horizon.  Hold on!

8. Advent is about waiting for better things to come.

This is the season of Advent and it reminds me that waiting is a discipline that is good for my soul. Waiting gets us in touch with our longing for better things. So, in this season that feels so difficult to endure, remember this is a season about honouring the waiting we must do in this life. We wait with hope, because we are waiting for a promise that seems too good to be true, to actually come true. (Read here for another post I wrote on this idea.)

9. Messy truth vs. faking it makes life more rich.

When I was a kid, I adored the old fashioned, Norman Rockwell-esque pictures of Christmas. The horse and sleigh, the warm glow of candles in the window, the feast prepared, and the family gathered - it was perfection. 

I am still drawn to that perfect image - snow lightly falling, cocoa by the fire, and everything as it should be. 

All that is well and good, but experiencing loss at this time of year has a way of jolting us out of anything that resembles perfection.  Life feels raw.


For those of us living a messy, raw life this Christmas, we are not exempt from living life richly. We have important gifts to give and receive this season, and perhaps the most important one is to live truthfully and authentically, even when it hurts.

10. "Emmanuel" is not just a name.

When everything seems like it's unravelling, I try to remember the most important message of this season.  This is when we remember that The Divine, The Higher Power, The Source, did something that only God could do - and it was done out of love for you and me. God became human. The Hebrews called this baby "Emmanuel" literally meaning, "God - With - Us ". 

Consider the birth of Jesus as The Divine breaking into this broken planet and into our broken lives. Maybe you're skeptical about this story - that's' okay -  but maybe today you also feel desperate enough to consider that God has come to be with us in these dark places.

Breathe this in for a moment:

  • God is with us: GOD - who made it all, you and me and all created things because he loves.
  • God is with us: IS- not was, or will be... he is. Right now. Right here. Today.
  • God is with us: WITH - God is a companion, right alongside us on this journey.
  • God is with us: US - no one is excluded from having God come to be with them. No one.

Christmas is complicated by our grief and loss and longing, but it can also be the season where hope is ignited into the tiniest of sparks because we can put our faith in the promise that God is with us.

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