Grief, Loss and Death at Christmastime

Rachel Chimits

While this time of year is traditionally considered to be one of great joy, it also can be the one where the broken pieces of our hearts and lives most clearly show up.

My uncle, my father’s baby brother, died suddenly before the holidays.

At 28 years old, he had moved back in with the family and was working his way through some personal issues, when a complication with a hereditary illness caused his heart to stop one night.

In many ways it felt like all of our hearts stopped for a few weeks, even as carols jingled in the grocery store and jolly Christmas cards arrived in the mail.

Christmas morning breakfast was slightly more subdued than usual, but everyone was doing their best to be filled with good cheer. The food tucked away, we moved to the living room. My brother was playing Santa, pulling presents out from under the tree. He bent to read a tag, and then his eyes met mine, extra wide. Even at eight, he knew he’d just pulled a grenade out from under the Christmas tree. He tried to shove the gift to the back, hide it behind the others.

“What are you doing?” Someone asked. Maybe it was our dad.

My brother swallowed hard. “It’s for Uncle Steve.”

A heavy silence fell—the sort that makes you want to fold in on yourself like a crumpled ball of paper—then my grandma said softly, “Oh. I must’ve forgotten to take it out.” The last word shook, and she started to cry.

Merry Christmas.   

The Longest Nights of the Year

Not all holidays are peaceful and full of family love. Not all Christmases are merry.

Almost all of us will have to grapple with this reality as some point in our lives. However, nothing compounds a hard holiday season more than when others around us just don’t understand because they haven’t been there yet and the commercials and movies and general verve demand that we keep a smile on our faces.

The contrast makes our grief, an absence, the empty seat at the table or the empty table in its entirety that much more painful. People rarely want to share our pain in normal times, much less during the ‘happiest time of year.’

Between the lines of the seasonal liveliness, we hear whispered, “Don’t be that little, dark cloud over everyone else’s good time. Don’t ruin the moment.”

This message, intentionally given or not, comes out of a deeply flawed understanding of the biblical Christmas story in general and Jesus Christ’s life in particular. When you look at the gospels’ beginning, very little in this tale isn’t fraught with fear, grief and loss.

People tend to gloss over the fact that Christmas story begins with a pregnant woman and her fiancé being forced on an unwanted journey thanks to a tyrannical ruler’s orders. They forget that Jesus’ earliest years also include his family becoming refugees to another country while a megalomaniac dictator murdered all the toddler boys in their region.

How often do we dwell on Luke 2:34-35 when Simeon tells Mary, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.”

This is only eight days after Jesus is born. The wise men haven’t even had a chance to show up yet.

“Weeping, lamentation, and a lack of comfort? They remain part of the Christmas narrative too,” writes history professor and Christian author Thomas Kidd. “Biblical Christmas is full of great hope, but it hardly resolves the grief and suffering rooted in the world’s sin. At least it doesn’t resolve everything yet.”

A Holiday for the Grieving and Lost

Maybe it’s not grief during the yuletide season that we dread, but rather it’s family conflict, financial strain, the good old verbal barbs flying over the glazed ham and cranberry sauce.

“When the celebrated merriness of Christmas is interrupted by my children fighting over who gets to open the door with baby Jesus in the Advent calendar, they remind me why baby Jesus had to come. Family conflict over the Christmas feast reminds us that a new feast awaits at the second Advent of our Lord,” mused Andrew Byers, chaplain at St. Mary’s College.

“The darkness of this season is an occasion for worshipful gratitude and a catalyst for the eager expectation that Emmanuel will soon be with us face to face again . . . in light stronger than the brightest stars can muster.”

Pastor Matt Redmond echoes this biblical promise in his Gospel Coalition article on hard holidays. “Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer, and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media.

“Christmas is for the son whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when he wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for prostitutes, adulterers, and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of the family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for those who have squandered the family name and fortune—they want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray.

“Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for sinners.”

Who Has the Last Word on Christmas

As we wrap up the last presents or clean up that ornament that fell off a bough, we ought to remember that the Lord of this season is not alarmed by our sorrows or melancholy. 

“We are to be grateful with all our hearts for the blessings we enjoy at Christmas. We know that all good things come from the Father. Yet it is good if we remind ourselves why Jesus came: because we are at war,” writes Gary Wilkerson in a Christmas devotional. “At war with the powers of darkness, with demonic spirits, with the devil himself. The devil comes into our lives to try to steal, to kill, and to destroy all in an attempt to derail us from God’s good purposes.

“With Christ’s birth, God established a beachhead in order to fight the enemy in a new way, in effect, a D-Day landing against the entrenched forces of hell.

“Many believers do not want to acknowledge this war in their lives, but it is a biblical fact that the enemy of our souls is always on the move against God’s people. Therefore, if our focus during the holidays in only on blessings—even good things like giving and receiving—we miss the fuller impact of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. And we miss out on the deeper, ultimate blessing that Christmas reveals is ours.”

Christmas is, without a doubt, a holiday for the broken and broken-hearted. We gather to be reminded that our pain and shame will not have the last word.

God will, to his everlasting glory.

“Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Revelations 21:3-4 NLT).