Managing Grief During the Holidays

For those who are experiencing pain or loss, the holidays can be a sticky wicket. For the past few Christmases, my family has had to find ways to face the happiest time of year, during one of the darkest seasons – my husband’s battle with ALS. It’s been an imperfect process, but I hope our discoveries can help you and your family if sickness or sorrow is dimming the glow of your celebration.

Annoying Happy People

One of the most important and surprising things I discovered as I entered my first Christmas post-diagnosis is this: Even though I am unbearably sad, happy people still exist, and they are sometimes annoying. At a time when it felt like my world was falling apart, it seemed impossible that the rest of the world just kept spinning like nothing had changed. Television commercials were filled with smiling shoppers while the department store aisles rang with the sounds of relentlessly cheerful music. Friends launched thirty-day Facebook status updates expressing daily gratitude for their happy, healthy lives. Around every corner was another reminder that we were not normal. We had no place in the picture-perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas scenes.

The Best Advice Ever

I mentioned this to a friend one day, saying, “The Happies are everywhere.” I may have seemed a little angry in my delivery, because she grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and gave me the best advice ever: “I know you want to resent all the Happies right now, Bo, but you can’t. You have to stay out of the ditch.”

Stay out of the ditch. She was exactly right. Using energy to envy the holidays of others will always, always lead to an emotional ditch. My husband is dying from a disease that is cruel beyond telling; no one would argue with my right to move into the ditch of resentment, but no one is going to move in with me, because it’s dark and sad in there.

Focusing on Gratitude

Instead of resentment, I am trying to reorient my thinking towards gratitude. I am thankful for my family and friends, for food and shelter and safety. I am thankful for hope and strength to face the day. I am thankful for the love I have known in my life and the ways that love makes me feel alive. Oh, there are so many things for which to be thankful, I can’t even begin to list them all, but it’s fun to try.

If you’re facing sorrow this Christmas and are struggling to be nice to the Happies in your life, this might be a good time to start a list of your own. Gratitude does not cancel out grief, but it does help us stay out of the ditch of resentment.

How have you managed sadness and grief during the holidays?

Share your stories and advice in the comments below.

Bo Stern is the author of When Holidays Hurt: Finding Hidden Hope Amid Pain and Loss. Bo is a wife & mom, speaker, pastor at Westside Church, and passionate about helping find a cure for ALS, a disease her husband has been fighting since 2011.

  • Patty Goodin

    It is very uplifting to read other people’s testimonials during a diagnosis of any kind of disease. We can see how these folks have managed their conditions. God has a plan for each one that is suffering. We can pray for also.

  • Nila Buswell

    Bo, thank you for the mention of the ditch of resentment – what a blessing you are! Since my husband moved to heaven 7 1/2 months ago, the Holy Spirit has helped me avoid that horribly dark place; and now, thanks to you, I have a name for it! May God continue to bless you!

  • Debra Hey

    You have touch my sad heart and funny thing brought joy in my heart. You have a special gift of truth and working through it! My husband is going through the cancer process again this year. Just starting treatments but this season is hard for us too!

  • Sheila Mann

    Have you checked into the cobra venum treatment? It has stopped ALS in other patients. There was a trial study and I believe it is getting approved by the FDA.

  • Janet Allen

    Holding you all in the light.

  • Bev Landgren

    3 years ago my son died suddenly 3 days before his 30th birthday. When the holiday blues are threatening I give myself permission to cry, and generally have a pity party for about 15 mins to 1/2 hour. Then I get up and move on. I count the blessings I have, pray for others who are experiencing pain, especially “new” pain. I repeat over and over that God is good all the time, until I believe it again. It is important to recognize the hard, but not to wallow in it. It is important to give yourself permission to grieve, but not live in the grief.

    I can not imagine your pain, and am praying for you and your family.

    Thank you for such an insightful post.

  • Gail Doyle

    Sending prayers to you all .One day I hope there will be a cure for this horrible disease