The simple task of writing Christmas cards brings me tremendous joy as I caress each card with words held in my heart for each recipient. Yet this year, like the cloud obscuring the sunlight present only moments before, sadness shadows the glitter edged cards before me. The hidden grief at Christmas reminds me all is not merry and bright.
More common than we realize, grief around the holidays visits almost every home with empty places at celebrations and the felt absence of loved ones separated from us in death. But another form of grief visits many homes with similar empty places, hurting hearts and lingering sorrow. Often unrecognized, and worse, unvalidated, hidden, or disenfranchised grief grips our hearts with sadness we struggle in identifying.
Silent Night of Grief
While any form of grief presents a hard road during the holidays, hidden grief whispers loud among those whose hearts hold it. Hidden loss at Christmas, or disenfranchised grief represents painful losses often dismissed for their seeming insignficance, unrelatedness to death or unworthiness of the term grief.
Losses such as pet loss, job loss, divorce, estranged relationships, miscarriage or health crises, all result in the painful emotions of grief. Yet few people recognize the silent visitor, much less receive the grief support they so desperately need.
Regardless of the type of loss experienced, grief reveals the natural response to suffering and pain. Grief spans more than death; it speaks of brokenness in all forms.
Grief becomes hidden when left unacknowledged or unvalidated by societal norms or others’ perspectives. Creating an impossible atmosphere of unexpressed sorrow, and the struggle of pretending it away.
Grief: the ghost of christmas past
Pen poised in hand, I stop; the words once ready seem gone. My mind drifts to Christmases past; of merry making, carol singing, rejoicing. The hollow feeling steals across my heart, as I return to the present.
Despite my best efforts, my focus shifts to the empty places at the table, the addresses no longer in my address book, and most severe of all: the clefts in my heart which find no healing balm.
Yes, hidden grief, like the ghost of Christmas past overshadows promises of joy, fellowship and gay laughter. Few understand the sorrow of wayward children, people who choose leaving our lives or the toll of lost health, pregnancy loss, financial or countless other losses accumulated over the course of the year.
Grief: the truth of christmas present
While my grief training fueled my effectiveness at helping others navigate their losses, it opened my eyes to hidden grief in my own life. Validating and speaking meaning into the undefined sorrow residing in my heart.
The holidays intensified the sorrow, but until I acknowledged the truth of the hidden grief at Christmas, I remained imprisoned.
Validation for my grief began with me; others could not validate what I refused to acknowledge.
Leaning into the truth of the presence of grief during the holidays opened the door for God’s healing Presence. Which ultimately taught me the beauty of redeeming grief for His kingdom.
when all is not merry and bright
Embracing hidden grief at Christmas involves a willingness to view suffering from God’s perspective. Like the beauty of a fully decorated Christmas tree, or the extravagance of gorgeously wrapped gifts, we desire our lives portray beauty, harmony and well-being.
For some reason this desire surfaces in the extreme during the holidays. We feel the disorientation of missing pieces; of altered relationships, or health challenges as if someone scribbled graffiti on our Currier and Ives Christmas plates.
Yet He who created all things and for whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16) condescended to not only be born in a lowly stable, but chose a birth surrounded by shame.
jesus was acquainted with grief
Isaiah 53:3 eloquently reminds us how popular opinion described Jesus:
“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
We often think of this verse as a description of Christ’s death; but it equally describes His birth and life. We know and by faith believe the story of the virgin birth, but even Joseph struggled with Mary’s pregnancy until God revealed the truth to him in a dream.
Much more the Jews and others from Jesus’ home town; gossip travels swift on wagging tongues. Our modern perspectives soften the fact of a young teenage pregnancy, but Jewish society reviled such a thing.
Jesus bore the perceived shame of His conception and birth fully acquainted with the grief of gossip surrounding His earthly family.
Many times the hidden grief at Christmas speaks of losses rooted in shame. Prodigal, estranged or rebellious children, job loss or financial hardship, divorce, unplanned pregnancy, failing health all bring stigmas driving us into hidden grief.
unwrapping hidden grief
Whether you struggle with hidden grief sourced in perceived shame or grief hard to understand because it flows outside the “normal” death defined grief, God knows, sees and fully understands your sorrow.
When it feels as though your Christmas celebration looks broken, empty and joyless; know God holds you. When your beautifully wrapped Christmas looks more like the shreds of paper discarded after all the gifts sit open, remember, you must tear the paper to see the gift.
Suffering tears the wrapping paper of our picture perfect lives revealing a gift we would never see apart from the sharp edges of pain.
tips for navigating hidden grief
Some common ways of embracing and journeying through grief apply to all forms of grief. I gave a comprehensive list for working through grief and supporting those who are grieving especially during the holidays HERE.
Consider the following methods for uncovering and facing hidden grief during the holidays.
- Acknowledge your sorrow as grief. Remember grief is an emotional response to loss and brokenness, which may or may not include the death of a loved one.
- Allow the experience of grief. Even if others fail in understanding the source of your grief, allow yourself the opportunity for processing grief over your loss.
- Accept the loss. Unlike grieving a death, we avoid hidden grief by denying certain losses. Relationship loss, independence loss or prodigal children losses cause true grief, but you cannot grieve what you refuse to accept.
- Allow yourself to say good-bye. Bidding farewell to the unfinished things, incomplete pieces of relationships or the painful parts of each loss frees you to move forward and enjoy the fond memories stifled by pain. You also move more easily into embracing a future different from what you originally planned.
- Create a ritual: write a farewell letter, display a photo of happier times, journal the blessings and positive aspects of the person, relationship or item lost.
- Cherish hearts rather than presence. Relationship losses in the form of divorce, estrangement, or prodigals present some of the most difficult losses to grieve. Often involving shame, blame or regret, their absence cuts deep.
- No matter the relationship status, love remains. Cherish the heart of the missing person; love them in prayer, in memory and in their absence.
- I still hang childhood ornaments and gifted ornaments from my two prodigals; though absent physically, I cherish their presence through these lovely reminders of love shared.
- Invite God into your suffering. Though hidden grief feels largely misunderstood and extremely lonely, God fully comprehends the brokenness your heart feels. Inviting Him into the sacred space of your pain, positions you for healing and facing a future you fear to anticipate.
embracing the blessing of hidden grief
As a beautifully wrapped gift delightfully held in your hand, unless the paper is torn, the gift remains hidden. Exploring and unwrapping hidden grief, though painful, reveals a gift of great value.
Through the pain of embracing hidden grief we see as God sees. Our loss focused perspective shifts, revealing the full beauty of that which remains missing from our lives at present.
Our hearts press into cherishing the hearts of those absent, while celebrating the time we once shared. Our hands learn the blessing of loosely holding earthly treasures and our souls breathe the hope our eyes fail in seeing.
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