The Christmas season is known as a time of great gaiety, happiness, and excitement. Songs on the radio celebrate spending time with loved ones, being home for the holidays, reminiscing about Christmases of "long, long ago." Christmas movies highlight the season as a time for merry making, festivity, gift giving, feasting, and fun.
All of this cheerfulness is good, of course. Unfortunately, it leaves out the harsh realities a large chunk of the population face now. Many families, through no fault of their own, won't have a merry Christmas.
For some, this December 25 will be the first Christmas without a cherished loved one. For them, the songs calling for Christmas cheer may be a little hard to stomach.
"Singing cheerful songs to a person whose heart is heavy is as bad as stealing someone's jacket in cold weather or rubbing salt in a wound." That's what King Solomon said in Proverbs 25:20. The last thing that people who are truly grieving this holiday season need is for well-meaning people to tell them to "cheer up."
For some, December 25 will be spent alone. Families have recently been torn apart by divorce. Some will spend the day in the hospital. Some will spend it in a mental health facility. Some will spend December 25 in prison (some will even be there falsely accused and/or convicted--adding even more pain).
C.S. Lewis once said, while reflecting on the death of his 45-year-old wife to bone cancer: "Talk to me about the truth of religion, and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."
While intending to offer "consolation," we can inadvertently offend a grieving person who is left simply not knowing how to reply to us.
A couple of years ago Tom Fuerst published an article on Ministry Matters' website titled, "10 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person." His advice is poignant no matter what time of year, but it's especially helpful during Christmastime when interacting with grieving people can be, well, awkward.
Among the phrases he cautions against saying are the following:
1. I know how you feel.
This sincere phrase should be avoided. In truth, no one can really know the grief of another person. Everyone processes differently. Even if we've experienced a similar loss, we can never truly enter into another person's loss. It's presumptuous to claim otherwise.
2. There is a reason for this. God is in control.
While technically accurate, this comment is insensitive to someone in the midst of grief. Fuerst explains: "I've heard it said before that you should never utter something about God that you can't say while standing at the gates of Auschwitz."
3. How are you doing?
Not a bad question, per se, but an impossible one to answer while drowning in grief. It's akin to asking a person caught in a snow storm if she's cold.
4. He's in a better place.
This may be true, but it doesn't at all lessen the pain of loss or separation. As long as that loved one is in a better place, and you're not in that place, this fact provides limited comfort.
5. You can have another child/At least you have other kids.
When a parent loses a child due to death, divorce or other matters, the insensitivity of this seems so self-evident as to need no explanation.
Amid all the shopping and clamoring to make a merry Christmas for ourselves, it's good to pause and consider that this "most wonderful time of the year" won't be that wonderful for some of our neighbors.
This doesn't mean we should feel guilty if things really are wonderful in our world, if our kids are healthy and if our jobs are going well. Be thankful!
But that thankfulness can exist alongside an awareness of the pain all around us. Being cognizant of other people's pain doesn't mean we trade in our own joy; in fact, the most profound joy we can experience comes from entering into the lives of other people and loving them where they are. As Albert Einstein famously said, "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."