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Jeff Wallace: Holidays and Broken Hearts

“The Christmas carols sound like blues, but the choir is not to blame.” This line from a Jim Croce song follows after the line “snowy nights and Christmas lights icy window panes make me wish that we could be together again. And the Wendy winter avenues just don’t seem the same.”
The fact is that if you are grieving the death or disappearance of someone from your life while others are cheerfully and busily about the festivities of the holiday seasons, and while others are living out the romantic scenes of lovers kissing under the mistletoe, or if you have lost a child while all about you are children with glistening eyes placing ornaments on a tree or unwrapping gifts and giggling … Then those words from that melancholy song will ring true for you. It’s hard carrying a heavy broken heart through the holidays!
Before coming to Americus to pastor Calvary Episcopal Church I worked with a hospice as a full-time Christian chaplain and grief counselor. I have listed below a number of things I have gleaned along this part of my path, things about life with a broken heart, things that I hope will help you through the holiday seasons:
1. As you grieve you will feel deeply sad at times, and at other times irrationally angry or guilty, and you may often feel anxious. You may be surprised to sometimes feel nothing at all, just numb.
2. Your first months after a significant loss may be numb. Like an anesthesia this numbness wears off as you gradually feel more and more of the pain of your loss. This God-given anesthesia known as denial allows you to gradually face your loss and feel your pain rather than feeling all of the pain at once.
3. Just as you may wonder where your feelings went, you may wonder what happened to your faith as it may seem that God is distant or altogether missing in action. He is not. And then there are those times when you may feel him lifting you up, and carrying you along.
He will always put you back on your own two feet so to speak.
4. Managing your grief is like traveling two different trains through life. You get on your grief train for a time and then you step away and climb into your regular activities of daily life train. To be engaged in the healing process one must attend to both, one’s grief progress and ones progress in other matters.
The other matters of life may serve as a helpful diversion from the pain of grieving.
5. Along the way you will meet kind people, compassionate people, and you may wonder if you’ve met some of God’s angels. Yes, most likely.
6. Beware of the three demons you may have to face along the way: Chronic Isolation, Abusive Insulation , and Clinical Depression.
To isolate yourself long-term and to avoid being out in public is definitely a demon that will undo your progress and healing.
To insulate your feelings with any kind of substance abuse will prevent you from processing your grief and will prevent your broken heart from healing.
Clinical depression is that demon that must be professionally managed with medical treatment. It is different from grief or normal sadness in many ways but a telltale sign of it is a deep feeling of self-loathing and an unrelenting and disabling fatigue. Tugging at your bootstraps won’t lift you out of it and God most always uses physicians for this demon.
7. Clinical depression sometimes has a partner in crime named Suicide. If you sense this demon approaching immediately dial the suicide prevention hotline, 800 715 4225.
8. Go ahead and tell most everyone that you’re “fine.” Of course, we know that F.I.N.E. for someone grieving may be an acronym for “feelings I’m not expressing” or “fouled up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.” Nevertheless, it is for you to decide with whom you will share your deep pain and the peculiar thoughts and feelings you’re having. Happenstance encounters with friends and acquaintances do not have to dictate when, where, and with whom you share your grief.
9. Yes, you do need to share your grief. Choose a trusted friend or grief counselor with whom you will share.
10. Remember that grief mimics mental illness while actually being a healthy process that happens to include peculiar feelings, thoughts and behaviors. You may have to keep saying to yourself and others who may not understand “I am not crazy! I am grieving!”
11. During the holidays it may be helpful to avoid traditions that are likely to trigger your grieving. This is another way of deciding when, where, and with whom you want to grieve. Holiday traditions will become less of a trigger as years pass and you may want to return to them in time. For this year, you may want to find a creative alternative to your usual traditions.
12. As a pastor, I recommend attending a church worship service where you will experience God’s Word and Sacrament and the healing ministry of music and prayer, rituals that may be meaningful for you. Holy Communion is an experience of God’s presence and a healing Grace. Holy Communion is for many a way of spiritually connecting with those who have passed on, the “Communion of Saints.”
13. Acknowledge the reality of your loss. You don’t have to “accept” the loss you are grieving but you do need to acknowledge that it has happened. This is necessary in order for there to be a healing process for your broken heart and shattered life. This “acknowledging” is actually a kind of acceptance, not to be confused with approving of what has happened.
14. Acknowledge the more difficult reality to accept: a life ahead of you to be lived without the physical presence of your loved one. To mourn is to adapt to this life ahead. It is likely that you will doubt your ability to adapt but as years pass it will become evident that you have indeed adapted. This is truly an amazing grace to discover!
The dynamics of this amazing grace of our God-given ability to adapt can be recalled with the help of an acronym:
G is for Grieving. R is for Remembering the blessings of your loved one’s life, and for Remembering God’s promise to return his or her life healed physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
A is for Accepting. C is for Counting the blessings that will remain true in the life ahead of you. E is for Eventually Embarking on a different life than you would’ve had otherwise but finding in it your returned capacity for Enjoyment.
15. Overlook well intended but ill-informed cliches or comments like the one that says that God has taken your loved one because he only picks the very best for himself or those that suggest God had a good reason and that we are not supposed to question. God is not selfish, and it is certainly not God’s will for us to deny the questions that form in our minds, and there are some things that simply defy reason. When horrible things happen, God himself is mercifully present in many ways. As for why he allowed it to happen, who knows? Mr. Rogers always said “look for the helpers!” I would only add to it “look for the huggers,” those he sends to lovingly embrace the brokenhearted.
16. Be open to the reality of your loved one’s on-going spiritual presence. Be open to envision your loved one healed of every physical, mental, and spiritual malady he or she may have had. Envision the promised day when we will be physically and spiritually together again.
17. Cry or don’t cry but if tears naturally surface then go ahead and blubber! Trying to cry is not therapeutic but to indefinitely hold back tears is unhealthy and will inhibit your healing process. Contrary to what some may think, no one has ever actually cried his or her eyes out. They will stay intact.
18. Diversion is OK for a short while but if you’re always diverting your attention from grieving by staying compulsively busy or occupied then you will interfere with your healing process.
19. Don’t expect God to give you an audible whisper as to what is your unique purpose in life. If your life has been shattered then put the pieces back together according to the purposes in life that God has revealed for all of us to find in the life that our Lord lived. In other words, if you do not know what your purpose is in life then just embrace those same purposes that Jesus embraced and try doing those things that he did with his life.
Be a peacemaker or an encourager or a reconciler or just the one who doesn’t hold grudges or harbor deep prejudices. While your life is shattered, maybe there are some pieces you don’t really want to pick back up.
20. Lastly, I commend it to you Luke 1:78-79. These are two verses of our Christmas story that were especially placed for us who are grieving. I will paraphrase: By the tender mercy of our God, the rising sun from heaven has broken through the dark clouds to shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the path of peace.
With all of this in mind, the windy winter avenues of your life won’t be the same this year and it may not be a merry Christmas for you but it may be your most meaningful Christmas ever as you experience in your darkness the light of Christ above the cradle of His birth in your heart.

Jeff Wallace is rector, Calvary Episcopal Church, Americus.