Grief has no timeline. There are moments in which memories of our deceased loved ones flicker in both the mind and heart, unexpectedly and unbidden. Our calendar years are peppered with these intense emotions of heartbreak and tenderness, longing and loss. But the holidays are particularly difficult to navigate when our hearts are mourning the death of someone we love. Maybe it’s because of the sentimental times of the past. Maybe it’s because the greater the love, the deeper the wound.
Love and loss mark our lives, and it’s important for us to slow down and allow ourselves to feel, to cry, and yes, even to celebrate. Here are three women who share their stories of loss, how their faith has changed after experiencing grief, and the wisdom they have learned about celebrating the holidays differently.
Mary Lenaburg, author of Be Brave in the Scared: How I Learned to Trust God During the Most Difficult Days of My Life (Ave Maria Press, 2019), lost her only daughter, Courtney, on Dec. 27, 2014. After that, celebrating Christmas was forever changed.
“Advent will always be the joyful anticipation of my daughter’s birth into heaven,” Mary said. “It will always be a season of underlying sorrow that doesn’t overshadow the joy of Christmas. Always an underlying sadness. And that’s OK.”
Because Courtney’s 22 years on earth were riddled with medical specialists and constant care, Mary and her family learned important life lessons as they reconciled their Catholic faith to the mystery of suffering and death.
“I realized quickly that I needed to trust God a little bit at a time,” Mary shared.
Courtney’s life served as a beacon of hope that opposed a bleaker worldview where persons with disabilities are seen as burdens. Mary believes this is because most people are thinking only of themselves rather than of others. The greatest lesson she learned from Courtney’s life and death is how to love unconditionally, without boundaries.
“Life doesn’t need to be complicated to be beautiful. The simpler, the better,” she added.
For Mary, the ultimate reckoning with God happens for all of us when he asks us at the end of our own lives, “How well did you love?” None of us is here to serve ourselves. We are instead here to serve God and to love the people he places in our path, because they reveal a part of God’s heart to show that everyone has a special place in this world.
This is why Mary advocates so strongly that people honor the dignity of the lives of those they’ve loved and lost, especially through prayer and honest conversation.
“You have to allow the grief to sink in and look at the life you have in order to find joy [in each day],” she said.
When Leticia Ochoa Adams lost her son, Anthony, to suicide in March 2017, everything changed.
“I’d never questioned God’s existence before that point, but then I questioned everything. I started from the beginning,” she shared.
For Leticia, grief burned everything she knew to the ground as she learned that grief emerged in the chaos, particularly in anger — a difficult emotion for many to admit they feel.
Though she was not raised with the sacraments, Leticia and her husband, Stacey, made a radical decision to become fully Catholic when they traveled to Rome.
Each had a profound experience while there that transformed their faith and their decision to get married — for a time. After Anthony’s death, she’s had to reevaluate her understanding of God and allow herself to grieve through all seasons, not just during the holidays. Grief is a lifelong process, Leticia believes, and processing it every day is how she allows herself to grieve.
For her, working through the trauma of the abuse she suffered as a child was part of her specific grief journey. She described it as raking a yard full of leaves in order to see the grass again. There’s always work to be done as, layer by layer, the wounds are exposed and healed. She believes that therapy and staying close to her husband, children, and pastor have all helped herself process her grief, see her problems more clearly, and be accountable for her life’s trajectory.
As a writer and speaker, Leticia shares her story of losing Anthony to suicide and her subsequent conversion, because she wants people to know that there isn’t one “right way” to love God or to grieve when someone dies. There’s no rule book, no perfect progression through specific steps. Instead, the loss becomes integrated into our worldview and the way we are better able to accompany other people who are suffering.
Grieving each loss differently
Terri Balash is no stranger to grief. She lost her grandparents when she was a little girl. Then, about 16 years ago, when she lost her sister-in-law, Penny, she realized it was time for her to explore the grieving process in more depth. Understanding the basics was a huge help when her father-in-law and then her first grandson, Orion, both died at later dates. Very recently she lost her beloved brother, Rick, unexpectedly.
Because Terri works with people who grieve as director of pastoral care for four parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, each time she has lost a loved one, she has noticed that her grief journey has been different.
“Each loss is different, because our relationship with [each person] is different,” she said.
For Terri, losing Rick made her feel like a victim all over again, reopening those old wounds. Rick was the one person in her life who would let her vent without judgment about her broken, tender heart, and now he was gone, too.
The holidays are a significant time for Terri and her family to talk about their grief, mainly because Terri recognized the reality that no one was really “getting it right” when it came to the holidays those first few years following Penny’s death. For her, that meant no one was opening up.
Ritualizing, or memorializing, her loved ones has been a powerful way that Terri and her family have incorporated the memories of those they’ve lost into their holiday celebrations. After Orion died, Terri created the Orion Christmas cookie.
That same year, every member of her family received a Christmas ornament in the shape of a ball with stars inside that lit up. It eased some of the unspoken tension surrounding the loss of Orion, who was a baby when he died, and everyone has placed their Orion ball somewhere prominent in their homes.
“When we see it, we remember that he’s both in our homes and our hearts,” Terri explained.
Whether we need to grieve silently or with those we love, the value of shifting our expectations of what grief should look or feel like is paramount to approaching the holidays with sensitivity and preparation.
10 TIPS ON GRIEVING DURING THE HOLIDAYS
- Revisit and ritualize memories of your loved one. Take ownership of how you want your loved one to be remembered: lighting a candle, planting a tree, creating a Christmas ornament, or baking a favorite dish.
- Talk about your loved one, even if it makes people feel uncomfortable. One way to honor the memory of your loved one is to have Masses offered for their soul. This is a reminder that they are with you, interceding for you, and it’s OK to talk with and pray for them.
- Do something different. Break tradition. It’s acceptable to decide you aren’t decorating for Christmas or that you are getting takeout for Thanksgiving instead of preparing a big meal.
- Be honest with God. He wants you to be yourself. God wants you to have a real relationship with him, even if that means being angry or sobbing when you try to pray. Enter into conversation with him. Don’t close the door to him.
- Allow your version of God to change. This helps you build a relationship with him based on love rather than fear, especially when you are willing to say, “God is God, and I am not.”
- Make a plan to care for and love yourself where you are. Be angry, sad, or happy. But wherever you are, whatever you are feeling, just be kind and gentle on yourself and your own unique grieving process.
- Plan how you’ll be part of the holiday festivities. Figure out ahead of time what you are and aren’t able to do. Keep your celebrations simple and communicate that to your family.
- Prepare for the holiday letdown. Realize there is a new normal about what the holidays will mean for you this point onward.
- Find a good grief counselor and/or priest who can help guide you through your grief. You may need someone to affirm that your loss is valid and real.
- Don’t put your prayer life on the back burner. But understand that prayer may look different to you from now on, and that’s fine. Shed your expectations of what you “should” and “shouldn’t” do for prayer, and just show up to let God love you.