Being Honest with Holiday Grief

posted by Bethel Care & Compassion | Nov 25, 2019

This letter was written by Jillian Finkbeiner, Bethel member and GriefShare leader, to anyone who may be struggling with honestly sharing difficult emotions this holiday season in the midst of grief and loss. She shared this letter during part of the program for Bethel's Hope for the Holidays event, an event to help those who have lost a loved one survive the holiday season. May it encourage you also.

Dear Beloved Friend,   
Having the strength to survive the holidays can be the hardest part.  Most, including myself, would love to go peacefully to bed on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving and thankfully wake up to a quiet, normal morning on January 2nd.  But, that’s not reality, that’s not strength and that’s not honesty.  Honesty in holiday grief is the first stepping stone to mustering up the strength to survive from Thanksgiving Eve to post New Year’s Day.

My authenticity begins with sharing what has brought me here today.  In 2013, two weeks before my 30th birthday, which also happened to be the week leading up to Christmas, my mother showed signs of bizarre erratic motor function.  Her left arm would uncontrollably flop around and she would be incapable of walking for a minute or two.  Fast to the end of January and my mother was on an airplane, being medevacked to the University of Washington.  A three centimeter tumor had been discovered on the top right lobe of her brain.  So began our raw twenty month journey of doctors, medicine, ER visits, experimental treatments, sleepless nights and thousands of tears shed, caught, stored, and treasured in heaven.  On August 11, 2015, at the young age of 58, my mother surrendered to the battle against her glioblastoma tumor and gently, peacefully, quietly placed her hand into the palm of Jesus.  That day, our family surrendered to the fight for health and life, and stepped into the battlefield named “grief”.

Grief is the most difficult mental health battle I have ever endured.  Thanksgiving to New Years with Christmas as a stop in between, magnify the absence of my mother at greater proportions.  No more baking sugar cookies, late night gift wrapping sessions, the infamous chick flick marathon on New Year’s Eve, or shopping-binges just before Christmas.  Dwelling on these forever lost moments stack the emotions high.  I feel lonely, isolated, anxious and passive.  I withdraw, seeking refuge in my blankets on the couch instead of facing the day and the world head on.  But, under the covers, I also know that I have to get honest and realistic about the emotions and feelings of this current holiday season. Way before the pie is sliced, cookies are baked or a carol is sung, I realize and own that the holidays will be my most difficult time of year.  I must accept that this season will again be different and I cannot fight it to try and keep events going that just are not meant to be alive anymore. 

Fighting reality and emotions are never a healthy idea.  I liken it to the 1950s pressure cooker you can still find in my grandmother’s kitchen.  I secretly dump in all of my grief ingredients and slide the wooden handles towards each other, setting the cover lock in order to place the sealing ring perfectly in place. 

As the holidays approach, my grief begins to heat up.  Family comments, traditional expectations, an empty seat at the party or dinner table, or others not even acknowledging the existence of my incredible mother begin to boil my grief, at a steady pace, inside my private pressure cooker.  I sit in isolation in a crowded room knowing I have only a couple of options before my cooker is going to explode off of my internal stove top.  I can choose to allow the boil to violently churn inside and never deal with it.  I could also unlock the handle early, releasing all of the steam at once, before the grief and emotions have been fully processed.  Or, I could trust the vent pipe and pressure regulator to do its job.  The vent pipe’s number one task is to allow excess emotions, feelings and thoughts to escape as to maintain the appropriate pressure inside of my mind.  The pressure regulator is what emits the sounds, thoughts, words and reactions of the boiling of my current grief.  The sound is loud and clear to indicate a certain level of grief, loneliness, emptiness, fear, sadness or a plethora of other emotions that have been reached. I have to rely on my internal pressure cooker to know when, where and how to be honest with my feelings, expectations and thoughts during the next seven weeks.  I want to be able and allowed to speak when I need to, and tell others what I want, and need, in my tumultuous moments of grief.

Experiencing tough emotions over the holiday is one hundred percent normal.  You are okay.  Do not fight these emotions when they come.  Do you know that God sees you here tonight, in this room, and in the next seven weeks of the holiday season?  One of His names in Scripture is Jehovah Roi and is commonly translated from Hebrew as, “the God who sees me.”  This name of God is mentioned in Scripture by a pregnant woman named Hagar who has fled her mistress Sarai after a horrendous fight about jealousy and passion.  The Angel of God instructs Hagar to return to Sarai and name her child, Ishmael which translates to “God hears.”  Hagar the servant would never forget how God heard her cry of affliction.  In this encounter with God, Hagar spoke, “You are the God who sees—-Jehovah Roi.”  Hagar arose, acknowledging and praising the fact that she had been the object of God’s gracious attention.  He saw her in her pain, desperation, depression, isolation, fear and anxiety.  Scripture tells us God found her—- and Friend, He’ll find you too!  Hagar was open and honest with her feelings and in return, God was gracious and merciful to her.  Hagar was intentional in her conversation and I encourage you to do the same.  Last week, I cried myself home from work.  I was missing my mom with an intensity I swear was burning a hole in my heart.  On that drive home, I was thankful for daylight savings, so no one would see the crazy lady yelling out to God at the top of her lungs with tears freely and unashamedly falling down her face.  In those twenty-two minutes, I knew God heard me and saw me.  A moment of honesty.  He caught every tear and listened as I poured my loneliness, isolation and sadness out to Him.  I knew I needed to be real and straightforward with Jehovah Roi because I know, “He sees the trouble of the afflicted; considers their grief and takes it in hand.” (Psalm 10:14)  He provides the balm for the hurting soul, strong arms of comfort and peace that surpasses all understanding.  Go to Him first, in constant open prayer because He sees you, knows you and loves you unconditionally.

Hagar ran into the desert alone, running aimlessly with no place to go.  God found her by herself; suffering, helpless and isolated.  Friend, I encourage you not to detach yourself like Hagar chose to do.  She ran into the wilderness when life events became despairing and too hard to handle.  Being honest means staying in the moment and speaking out your grief.  Reflect and see if you can identify one or two people who will allow you to be honest inside of your moment.  These people need to be willing to show up, stay and see you through.  Their qualities and abilities to listen go unmatched to the majority of the friends and family members you do have.  My established inner circle of trusted confidants includes my Aunt Beth, my mom’s best friend Bonita, and my dad.  A mixture of these three believers in Jesus allows me to express my need for help at a moment’s notice.  They also allow me to speak what I am feeling and provide the comfortable and necessary space of time to talk about my mom.  These three individuals have been established throughout my grief process through raw and honest prayers to God.  They’ve become the voice of understanding, reason and stability.  In their active listening, they uniquely help me process and keep reality in perspective when my emotional pressure is mounting.  They also faithfully pray for me when I let them know it’s been a hard day, week or season.  God created and designed us to not be alone or intentionally isolated.  He called for us to have a community of believers who would faithfully come alongside us at a moment’s notice.  I urge  you to identify and begin to establish a small group of trusted friends and/or family members who will willingly carry you through this holiday season.  Being vulnerable with trusted confidants is hard, but well worth it in the process.  They’ll not only encourage you, but give you the space you need to be honest, real, and speak your true thoughts with integrity and without fear.

Moses and Aaron from Scripture are a fantastic example of a God formed and given friendship.  They complimented and supported each other where the other lacked.  In Exodus 17, we find Moses commanding Joshua to defeat the Amalekites while Moses held the rod of God in his hand.  When Moses held up God’s rod of victory, Israel prevailed in battle and when he allowed the rod of God to hang down, the Amalekites prevailed.  Verse 12 states, “But Moses’ hands became heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it.  And Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.  So Joshua defeated the Amalekites.”  The position Aaron and Hur took on Moses’ behalf allowed not only Moses but an entire nation to have victory.  They kept Moses strong, acknowledging their need to depend on God for victory and not on their own strength.  Holiday grief is a battle and we easily drop our hands in defeat because some days are just too hard.  But you’re not alone in your fight.  God has provided Aarons and Hurs for you in order to remain strong in the battle and to see you through.  I encourage you to begin praying for God to send you Aarons and Hurs for this holiday season.  Friends who will hold up your arms without you even asking them to. 

Being authentic during this holiday season will not be easy, but it will be an important step in surviving and making it to the beginning of January.  The internal pressure cooker has already been placed on the stove and will soon enough start to heat up and bubble.  Don’t release your pressure too soon or too late; instead be attentive and vigilant with your feelings to process your emotions and thoughts.  Be direct in prayer by calling out to Jehovah Roi—-because He sees and hears your pain.  Text, message, email or call your supportive network—-they’re armed, prepared and willing to go to battle with you in the name of Jesus. 

Beloved Friend, you and I will get through this season.  This will be my 5th holiday without Mom and I will go to battle again. I already know I’ll feel isolated or abandoned, cry my way through Christmas Eve service, sequester myself on Christmas evening to my Grandmother’s basement for hours and go to bed way before the New Year’s Ball will drop.  But in those moments, I will not forget that God sees me, knows me, hears me, comforts me and loves me.  He’ll provide the spaces of honesty and comfort so I can lift my grief to Him.  We will make it, you and I, in our openness with God; we’ll be carried through to the beautiful and bright morning of January 2nd.

You’re doing great. Keep going.
With all my love,
Jillian

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