Handling Grief At Christmas & Beyond
At Christmas and the New Year most of us will have spent weeks maybe months preparing for the biggest annual family get together. For most, the plans and the shared meals, the exchange of gifts and the enjoyment of shared family traditions bring a sense of joyful anticipation and grateful participation.
But for some the approach of Christmas is like a looming precipice, a weary traveller already on an unchosen journey in the valley of deepest darkness seeing even deepest darkness ahead. And yes for many of us; friends family or neighbours that is the journey
And so it was this time last year Thursday 20th December together with Gill and our entire family at 12.57 we said our final good bye to my son Joel. After just weeks of an aggressive cancer he left us and found the safe arms of Jesus. His death was tragic and left us deeply shocked and grieving and yet was victorious right to the end. He prayed & prophesied for friends and family. He ordered presents from his hospital bed many of which were opened with pain and grief on an unimaginable scale Christmas day. And he died full of confidence in His God; in a room full of the presence of God and the Word of God being read out loud. Hospital staff came in and wept with us experiencing the presence of God too. We miss Joel David Oliver but we are grateful his suffering is over.
For those left behind the suffering has just begun
Grief in those circumstances can come like an express train, or it can seep out through tears like barely imperceptible drops of sap from a tree’s bark. It can cause you to shout, to cry out, to bury your head into a friend’s arms. It can descend like a mist of perpetual darkness and it can catch you out when you least expect it. It can leave you in shock and disbelief. It can fill your mind with anger. It follows you to bed and fills your sleep and dreams. It plays back pictures to process the trauma and tries to help your mind make sense of it all. All these things and much more belong to grief.
Occasionally you may get caught up in a virtual tsunami of grief where, for some reason, from deep within erupts a tidal wave of emotion that you weren’t expecting, don’t fully understand, and certainly can’t resist. There are moments which professionals call ‘readiness,’ when a number of contributing factors are in place and an unexpected tsunami of grief might positively take place.
Gill and I had the privilege of staying with Alasdair and Eleanor Fulton. Eleanor is a retired clinical psychologist. They housed us while Joel was in his last days and helped us facilitate the 24-hour family care. When Gill and I rang the doorbell at their home in Hilton, in the North of England, we both crumbled, and for several hours our unstoppable tears provided the river along which we could push the boat of our questions, pain and uncertainties. Gill would say afterwards that it was if we handed Eleanor all the broken pieces of the vase of our life and within those first few hours, she had glued them back together sufficiently to enable us to carry on.
Psalm 23 tells us that ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The Hebrew rendering of that phrase is ‘the valley of deepest darkness’. Eleanor explained to us that grief is like a long black tunnel, pitch-black and with no apparent light visible at the end. Occasionally, she suggested, just occasionally, you may see tiny pinpricks of light that last for a moment, a second or two.
Jesus Understands the Pain of Loss and Grief
The death of one of Jesus’ closest friends, Lazarus, actually produced the shortest verse in the Bible. ‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” John 11.35
Jesus had lost his own father sometime after the age of 12, exactly when we are not sure. With all the positive statements we have made, Jesus does not minimize the pain of grief. He does not whitewash over it, he can share in it intimately. And in this short story with the shortest verse in the Bible, we get it. Jesus understands grief. He, more than anyone, knows that death is conquered, but it still leaves widows, orphans and bereaved parents behind. At the cross there is a remarkable exchange where he makes preparation, and says to Mary, ‘Behold, your son!’ and to John, ‘Behold, your mother!’ Whatever else was being set up, Jesus understood the importance of close, trustworthy support at a time of grief.
If you were to ask anyone who grieves the death of a loved one, one of the things they feel is that they grieve alone, that no one really understands them. That is often true on a human level, but the liberating truth is that in our deepest pain, in those ceaseless seeping tears or in a tsunami of grief, Jesus has been there and understands it.
Grief and love are woven together. Our grief is only so intense because of how intense the love was. One of Jacob’s friends said to him, you would have been better off if you’d had a dad who beat you and never loved you, but your dad was so wonderful, so loving and so creative with memories, you will miss him like mad.
Joel and I were so close, whenever we spent time together working commercially in church settings or just having adventures, it was light and life and love for both of us. When one or the other had to travel five hours to return home, there would be the dull ache of temporary loss and a keen awareness of the sadness of parting. When Gill and I moved to America, it was a painful parting for each of our four children in different ways. If we feel that temporary parting so keenly, how much more shall we, and should we, miss those that Jesus takes from us.
Isaiah, in a well-known often-read passage, talks about an anointing for healing (binding up) the broken-hearted. And Psalms talks about saving the crushed in spirit. In this context, it is evident that sorrow and grief are to be expected and, actually, welcomed. Really? Yes, if he is to heal the broken-hearted, then expect tears. If he is to heal the crushed in Spirit, then expect tears. Tears can be either a symptom or a sign of grief without hope, or they can reflect real, deep even unimaginable loss, and yet with hope and a certainty about both the destination of our loved one and the certainty of our own healing.
And in this context don’t be afraid to talk to those who have lost a spouse, a friend, a son or daughter a mum or Dad or a still born baby. The reality is you won’t know what to say. The reality is you will likely approach this person with a lump of cold concrete in the pit of your stomach and a quick prayer ‘Lord help me say something’. But please do it, please risk it and if your comments or conversation should produce tears in the other then let them flow
As you and I approach Christmas and the New Year holiday can we spend just a moment to think if we know anyone right now who may be in the unchosen valley of deepest darkness. And risk it. Go say something, offer a hug, and maybe just maybe for that moment you can join them in that darkest of all valleys; and shine a pinprick of God’s comfort light this Christmas
To read more about the Oliver family’s pain filled and positive journey, to read about heaven and to read more about handling grief; David’s book All About Heaven can be seen at