The Cross Above the Manger: Coping with Grief and Loss Over the Holidays

The Cross Above the Manger: Coping with Grief and Loss Over the Holidays

Manger 2

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 Card Christmas by the fireplace fail to match up to the complex realities, the uncertainty and fear that are part of many of our lives.  Death of a friend or family member, loved ones serving in the military, illness and unemployment can cast a long shadow on our holiday celebrations.   Holidays can magnify any painful experiences of family dysfunction in the past and may 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, or a brother or sister who will never share in the wonder of the season.  This repressed and unrecognized grief associated with abortion and other losses can be expressed in substance abuse, depression, melancholy and a hunger to remain distracted and busy amidst the hustle and bustle of the season.  Often there is great fear to face that deeper grief and the often complicated feelings and painful memories that can accompany such losses.

If we can slow down the Holiday rush for a few minutes, we may discover something important in the deeper meaning in this great feast.  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:

As the Angel Gabriel encounters Mary, he responds to the anxiety in her heart:

“Do not be afraid Mary…”

Joseph is sick at heart and very confused after learning of his beloved fiancé’s unplanned pregnancy; the Angel proclaims:

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…”

Of course they were both confused and afraid.

We think of the Christmas story in the context of cozy and warm family gatherings, with the smell of cookies baking in the oven.   But in the real Christmas story, the lives of Mary and Joseph are in the process of being turned upside down!  They will face even more fear and uncertainty as their vocations unfold.

Joseph and Mary, and the life of their newborn child will soon be threatened with terror and death from a demonically inspired Herod. They face dangerous travel and exile from their hometowns for years to come.  Joseph and Mary surely were challenged in many ways that the stories do not recount.  Their faith and trust in God were forged in the fires of these trials, testing and temptation that are part of all of our stories.  We can imagine that Joseph had other moments of doubt and confusion and in prayer would remember the Angel’s reassuring message:

“Don’t be afraid Joseph; God is with you, keep moving ahead…trust in Him.”

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.

Emmanuel – God with Us

With the help of the Holy Spirit, this feast can be time of abundant grace and new opportunities for spiritual growth, healing and joy – even when the Holiday time is far from ideal.  In fact, just as with the Holy Family, suffering can lead us to a deeper encounter with our Christian vocation:

  • The movie Inside Out very beautifully illustrated how grieving can help us to move beyond the denial manifest in hyperactivity, addiction and numbness. As the story of Riley in the story reveals, healthy expressions of grief can help us treasure what has been lost, more deeply embrace those we love, and empower us with new energy to embrace the future. Make time to be with friends, family or see a priest/minister or counselor who you can share your heart with.
  • If you have a friend or relative who is going through a tough time or had a rough year, make some time to be with them. Acknowledge their loss and invite them to share their heart with you. If a relative is missing a loved one, offer them the greatest gift of sharing their dearest memories and feelings.
  • If you know a friend loved one who was impacted by an abortion and they have shared this with you in the past, share a pamphlet or contact information for an abortion healing program in your area. If they want to share about their experience, receive what they are ready to share from their story, and offer the good news that this is a perfect time in the upcoming New Year to bring this suffering to the Lord, and attend a program for spiritual and emotional healing after abortion.
  • Sometimes it can seem like life is giving you the short end of the bargain. You can struggle with anger at God and others for various trials and challenges. Try to remember that the anger, bitterness or sadness from your life wounds are a potent spiritual reservoir of grace when united with the suffering of Christ. Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice to our Heavenly Father. We can unite our imperfect sacrifice (some of that pain may be the fruit of our own sin or the sin of others) to the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary on the altar at each mass.
  • Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently. Confess from the heart any bitterness, resentment arising from those areas of sin and darkness that are part of your life story and may be especially painful this time of year. There is powerful grace and peace when we open our heart to Christ through the Priest, and with God’s grace move to grieve our losses, let go of what is out of our control, and experience a new freedom and peace. Cry out to God for His mercy and peace. This sacrament is especially fruitful in times of suffering and temptation.
  • Exercise daily if your health allows. It’s the best medicine in the world for anxiety and depression. Just a brisk walk in the woods or by the water can lift your heart from the depths and help you see the sky, sun and the hope of new beginnings.
  • Make a resolution to get involved in service in your local church. Reach out of your own pain, and offer the love of Christ to the homebound, prisoners, the homeless and children in need.

Surviving Family Celebrations

Celebrate and rejoice in and through the pain.  Things were far from perfect for the Holy Family.  It’s ok that your marriage, family and holiday celebrations are far from idyllic.  Lower the heavy expectations you place on your shoulders to provide the perfect holiday.  It’s more important to take more time for mass, adoration, and prayers such as the rosary.

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 toxic dynamics and exchanges and let the peace of the Christ Child reign in your heart.  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.

If you are fortunate to enjoy the company of friends and family in sharing the joy of the season, praise God and treasure this great gift.

If sorrow and pain are part of your journey and at times darken your Holiday celebrations…you have not been abandoned.  You have been called, and Jesus would say, blessed to share in the suffering of the Holy Family:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.  Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.  Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   (Matthew 5, 3-10)

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