Dealing with grief during the holidays

In Alaska, it’s easy to understand why so many cultures and religions have a celebration of light near the winter solstice. Here in the depths of the darkness, we need a reminder that light will return. When the sun never seems to fully rise, it’s hard not to give in to despair.

The darkness of grief and mourning can feel the same way. When we have lost a loved one it can feel like our sun never fully rises, and that we may never escape this dark season. When this season of grief coincides with the holiday season, it can be doubly painful: How can we be expected to be jolly when we are grieving? How can we be expected to sing “Joy to the World” when there is sorrow in our hearts?

The answer, is, we are not expected to. Although it may seem like the whole world is demanding cheer, every person has the right to say “not today.” In times of grief and sorrow, it is harmful to be told to fake a smile. It interrupts the process of grief, in which the emotions of sadness and anger and even numbness must be taken seriously and given room to fully unfold. In time they will wane, and happier feelings will return. As Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

But until then, they must be honored, not suppressed.

For those who are fortunate enough not to be grieving, we have the sacred responsibility to care for those who are. Grief has the nefarious tendency to lead people toward isolation, which in turn intensifies the depression and pain. Supporting one another in times of pain is perhaps the best aspect of humanity, and it is a required ingredient in the grieving process. However, we have to be careful not to fall into the trope of saying “if you are depressed, reach out for help.” Though it stems from good intentions, it places the burden of action on the one who is grieving. This is backward: The one who is grieving frequently doesn’t have the emotional energy to reach out to others. Grief has a gravity that pulls one inward. Instead, it is up to that person’s friends and family to cross that awkward social threshold and reach out to the one who is grieving. A simple “How are you doing?” or “I know it’s been a hard year,” can make all the difference. There are no perfect words, but reaching out is never wrong, and it may provide a timely reminder that their sun will rise again.

We grieve with hope. Grief, like winter, returns to the light, but neither can be rushed or forced. They must simply be experienced and endured. If you are grieving this holiday season, remember that whatever your culture or tradition, your sadness has value, there is hope, and you are not alone. As Alaskans have learned, even the longest, darkest winter can be endured when experienced together.

Matt Schultz is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Matt Schultz

Rev. Matt Schultz, an Anchorage pastor, is on the steering committee for Christians for Equality.