The Hardest Time of Year
Grieving Pain and Loss at Christmas
The Christmas season carries heavy expectations. Expectations that often more closely resemble Hallmark images than the quiet expectancy of celebrating Christ’s birth. We picture festive gatherings with family and friends, brightly wrapped gifts under decorated trees, and delicious meals around tables with loved ones.
Yet for those who have experienced loss, the holidays often bring a sense of dread. I remember the cloud that hung over me as I approached the first Christmas after my son’s death. My world had stopped, but everyone else’s seemed to be moving forward. I recall the discouragement before the holidays after my post-polio syndrome diagnosis, when I was told not to wrap presents, shop for gifts, or entertain as I had in past years. And I shudder when I think about how devastated I felt the first Christmas after my husband left, as I reeled from the wreckage of our broken family. Joy to the world, especially my world, seemed impossible.
In a year like ours, when loss and sadness are indescribably deep for many, when we’ve lost our health, our dreams, our loved ones, our livelihood, our sense of security, we wonder how we could have joy. John Piper’s words offer us a bridge:
Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the loss. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life he’s given you.
Embracing the life God has given us is far better than just surviving. It is purposefully living in the present, acknowledging what is hard, and choosing to trust in the middle of it. It is welcoming where we are in life while honestly grieving what we wish were different. It is facing and naming our disappointments, but not letting them define us.
Grieving Loss and Trusting God
How do we move from grieving our losses to embracing the present? The best way I know is through the holy practice of lament. The idea of lamenting has become more popular in recent years, but it is sometimes misinterpreted as being angry at God, yelling anything we want in a smoldering rage. Quite simply, that is sin. But at the other extreme, it is also wrong to turn away from God in disillusionment, offering him the silent treatment.
“In my life, lament has been a companion on the way to joy.”
I pulled away from God in my grief after my son’s death. I felt God had let me down, and I was hesitant to draw near to the One who could have prevented my pain. I didn’t think his presence would comfort me. Though my ungrieved losses were hardening me, seeping out in destructive ways, spending time with him felt like an unappealing chore. So, I stuffed away my pain, believing the best way to survive was to ignore my grief. And to ignore God.
But as my distance from God grew, so did my emptiness. I realized there was nowhere else to go because only Jesus had the words of life. So, I turned back to God and sat with him, Bible open, wrestling through my grief. I discovered that the Bible models for us how to lament.
Drawing Near with Pain
Throughout the pages of Scripture, we see how to honestly cry out to our Lord in our pain. God wants us to draw near to him (James 4:8), and he invites us to pour out our complaints and trouble (Psalm 142:2).
We can tell him that we have forgotten what peace and happiness are and that we have lost hope (Lamentations 3:17–18). Or express that nothing feels safe, and no one seems to care for us (Psalm 142:4). Yet we are assured that he cares about our tears and tossings (Psalm 56:8), so we can boldly ask him to deliver us from the floodwaters (Psalm 69:13–14) and to hear our desires and to strengthen our hearts (Psalm 10:17). Lament ends as we declare our trust in God (Psalm 28:7) and remember all he has done as we recite his promises back to him (Psalm 77:11–14).
The psalms of lament are intensely personal. They are in the first person — people talking directly to God, not about him. They do not hold God at arm’s length, but rather evidence deep trust as the writers lay bare their inner and outer struggles.
Lament Leads to Promises
In my life, lament has been a companion on the way to joy. After lamenting to God, I have been able to fully hear and embrace his promises. I trust God more. I feel heard and understood. I don’t have hidden smoldering resentment or hardened indifference. I long to draw near to God, to experience his comfort and his reassurance. Isaiah is my go-to book of comfort, where God speaks to his people directly, reassuring us that:
He is with us. “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you” (Isaiah 41:10). “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isaiah 43:2).
He has redeemed us. “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22).
He has not forgotten us. “I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15–16).
He will carry us. “[You] have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:3–4).
The promises of God are extraordinary. They hinge on the promise of Immanuel, the Messiah foretold by Isaiah, who guarantees our God is with us. We will never walk alone.
Receiving Immanuel in the Valley
How do we enter this Christmas season, when loss feels ever present, without giving in to despair? How do we find joy when little is as it used to be, and our lives feel thin and empty? How do we celebrate the birth of Christ when nothing around us feels celebratory?
“You don’t need to muster up joy on your own this Christmas. Draw near to the Lord.”
We lament. We read the Bible, even when it feels dry, looking for words that express our feelings and for words that declare God’s promises. We pray, even when we don’t feel like it, calling out to God in our distress and not pulling away in anger or indifference. We don’t look away from our suffering or gloss over it with platitudes. We sit with our Lord, sharing our disappointments and heartaches. We grieve what was and embrace what is, while meditating on his great love for us.
And as we do those things, our eyes will be opened to the truth of God’s words, the extravagant promises he makes to us, and the priceless gift of Christ himself.
You don’t need to muster up joy on your own this Christmas. Draw near to your Lord. Tell him how you are feeling. Pour out your heart to him (Psalm 62:8), and receive the promise and joy of Immanuel, for our God is truly with us.