Our Grief Doesn’t Stop During Advent

On one level I’m doing quite well these days: eating, sleeping, going for walks, talking every day with one or sometimes all three of my sisters, connecting with friends, paying bills, taking care of the household, easing back into writing and speaking, taking on a new contract as an editor.

But sometimes the grief over my husband’s passing makes me feel anxious. Sometimes I just want to leave the kitchen in a mess, ignore the phone and emails, lie on the couch and binge watch something from his DVD collection.

So yesterday I watched a few episodes of Commander in Chief with Geena Davis in the leading role as the first woman to become president of the United States. In one episode, the president’s mother—whose husband had died some years earlier—comes to visit for Thanksgiving. In a moment of quiet reflection, the mother says about her late husband, “Everybody says you get used to loss. I miss him more every day.”

Yes. I miss my husband more every day.

For some, such grief might seem out of place in this season of Advent and Christmas. Grief doesn’t go well with the “holly jolly” music at the mall or the “Joy to the World” at church.

Or does it?

As Kalina Carlson writes, “Grief does not disqualify us from Advent; grief can highlight what Advent is about.” I appreciate these words of encouragement drawn from her own experience of loss. So today I’m sharing her story and reflection below. If you are grieving  or know someone who is, may God’s comfort and joy be with you in a special way this season.

Image by pics_kartub from Pixabay

Our Grief Doesn’t Stop During Advent

by Kalina Carlson, pastor and the creator of Liel grief boxes

This article was first published in Faith & Leadership and appears here with permission.

My mom died in the early morning of Dec. 29, 2018. Her death was shockingly quick — a heart attack, failed CPR attempts, ambulance lights and a secluded emergency waiting room. There were no goodbyes, no final wishes, no moments for hand holding as she slipped away.

Six hours earlier, she had been joking, planning a New Year’s Eve party and kissing me good night. Then there was nothing. She was gone. My mom was 54 years old.

Four years later, I have graduated from seminary, completed ordination and become a full-time pastor. Every year, I lead congregants through the Advent season, and every year, I completely dread it. I love my congregation and the ways they have welcomed me into their lives despite my grief. But Advent always comes crashing down on me, and if I am not careful, I can allow my grief to convince me that I am disqualified from Advent altogether.

Since losing my mom, I have found myself terrified by the Christmas cheer that surrounds me. There is not a store, radio station or gathering where I can find refuge. This is true for anyone mourning a loved one and can be intensified if that loss occurred during the holiday season. Society does not allow much room for sadness at Christmas. When I have expressed my grief out loud, I have often been met with phrases intended to quickly sidestep my grief, the kind you’ve likely heard if you’ve ever found yourself in the front row at a funeral:

“It was all God’s plan.”

“God must have needed another angel.”

“He [God] always takes the best ones first.”

Or maybe it is something awkwardly personal — “God must have really needed a haircut!” My mom was a hairstylist.

For many people, including myself, grief can feel incredibly isolating, and unfortunately, this has bled into our churches. My first Advent season without my mom was also my first as a pastor. Every Sunday, my morning routine was the same: I would cry on my way to church, fix my makeup in the car, take a few deep breaths, put on my best fake smile and walk into the building. I couldn’t sing the carols. I didn’t care about the decorations. I halfheartedly participated in the ugly sweater contests and Christmas parties.

Participating fully in Advent felt impossible, because I was frightened the entire season. That first Christmas without my mom and first anniversary of her death felt like a train barreling toward me. Advent was merely the season when I was tied to the tracks. But that didn’t make sense, because Advent was supposed to be about anticipating Jesus coming to free us from our suffering. Why is it that my suffering made me feel so far from God?

When I first began creating Advent grief resources, I pored over this question — and always came back to the shepherds within the Christmas narrative. While we often depict Jesus’ birth as a serene, “silent night” type of experience, the shepherds fracture that illusion with their terror. I saw myself within the shepherds’ fear. As with me, their intense emotions did not begin on Christmas night; their prior suffering made sure the terror was already there.

In the ancient Near East, shepherding was a job reserved for slaves, underpaid servants or the youngest sons — people deemed “expendable” given the danger. It was not uncommon for shepherds to have to defend their flocks from wild animals or thieves. It was also not uncommon for shepherds to die while on the job.

The shepherds in the Gospel story are not living the serene life depicted in many Christmas movies and nativity scenes. Rather, they are waiting, listening to the night, bracing for danger to spring out from the dark.

And that night near Bethlehem, that’s what happens. A jump scare of literally cosmic proportions springs forth. The shepherds are terrified, and an angel exclaims, “Fear not!” The news of Jesus’ birth is delivered, and the shepherds begin a journey into the night.

Grieving during Advent feels a lot like this part of the Christmas narrative — anticipating danger lurking in the darkness. While the rest of the world is singing carols and decorating trees, those who are grieving are facing a Christmas without someone they love and dreading its arrival. The weight of that isolation is overwhelming and can make it seem as though grief belongs nowhere near celebrations, Advent services or even Christ himself. But the shepherds’ story proves to us that God believes the opposite.

An angel found the shepherds at night, and an invitation to meet Jesus was offered to the fearful, the outcast, the expendable. After the angel left, the shepherds traveled through the night to meet their Savior. The danger was still there, the fear still lurking, but they took steps that led them closer to Christ.

Now, I talk openly with my congregants about my grief. I tell them because, like the shepherds, by confronting and traveling through the darkest, scariest time in my life, I have come closer to God. Grief is still in my life; I will forever walk with an emotional “limp” from the brokenness of losing my mother. But I still journey through the night, because I know that God will still find me. And I know that because of Advent.

If you are grieving this Advent, embrace what the shepherds have taught us and what the candles we use to light the season help us remember.

Peace comes from knowing that God can still find us, even in the midst of our darkest nights. Steadfast love is displayed by a God who saw humanity’s suffering and chose to experience it firsthand. Joy can show up unexpectedly, not in the form of happiness, but with gratitude that our grief is seen and felt by God. On Christmas, hope was born into flesh in the form of a baby whose life, death and resurrection would bring life to all.

Grief does not disqualify us from Advent; grief can highlight what Advent is about.

Writing/Reflection Prompt: Check out these tips for coping with grief during holiday times. What helps you cope with grief?


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20 thoughts on “Our Grief Doesn’t Stop During Advent

  1. Sometimes grief comes unbidden and unanticipated and cannot be stopped until it is spent. I have had those moments.

    1. Yes, the overwhelming tide of grief comes in moments and seasons, but there are times of less intensity too. I’m grateful for God’s grace through it all. May you be borne up by God’s Spirit, Elfrieda.

  2. Thank you for sharing this April. The passing of my nephew was sudden, traumatic and very sad. Being that it is the Advent season some of my joy has been covered up now with deep grief. Knowing that grief is OK even during Advent is truly helpful.

    1. My sympathies to you and your family on the sudden passing of your nephew, Theresa. That would be difficult at any time of year, and I can understand how it would change the Advent season for you. May God hold you close and comfort your hurting heart.

  3. I finally forced myself to bring up a box of Christmas decorations this afternoon. I put it down in the living room, stood there for a moment and then walked away. A few minutes later I found this. Through my tears I say “Thank you”.

    1. Your tears are precious, and I thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. This week I brought out the nativity set that my husband and I bought for our first Christmas together. That made me pause and brought me tears too. Yet even in grief there is great gratitude. God’s comfort and joy be with you in this season.

  4. Thank you so much April. Loss is all around us, especially as we age. My mother did when I was 17, my father 3 years ago. I still miss them. God bless.

    1. You’re welcome, Lorne, and thank you for your comment sharing your loss. It seems the more years we have and the more people we know, the more loss is all around us. And though grief may change over time, still we miss the people we love. May the peace of Christ be with you.

  5. Thank you April for this meaningful post! We have lost several special people in the past year and, yes, it is sometimes hard to be joyful this Christmas season. And a dear friend of ours has lost three family members in the space of a year, so she is hurting so much. How can I help is my question. May God be very near to you and to all those who have lost loved ones recently and give peace and comfort.

    1. Thank you for your comment and words of blessing, Patricia. Just as each person’s experience of grief is different, I think what helps may vary from person to person, and from moment to moment, and sometimes nothing seems to help. But simply being available even when we don’t know how best to help can be a gift. I treasure these words from friends written in a card: “During this season of mourning, we are here for you, in silence and in conversation.”

  6. Thank you for sharing. Kalina mentioned the lack of resources for grief in Advent. For those looking, my friend, Iris Parr, has just written an Advent devotional book that came out of her experience grieving her son who died at age 4 and having to face Advent and Christmas in a season of grief.

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