If we are really honest, seasonal fatigue and exhaustion get the better of most of us at some time during or after the holiday season.
When at last the festivities come to an end, most who grieve are grateful simply to be vertical. We may be reeling from all we have experienced and said and done to be present to the season and, at the same time, to honor our grief. We may have a hangover of hurt if those around us failed to acknowledge our grief. But by and large, we have survived the merriment, the sorrow of remembrance moments and, for some, the stress of family togetherness.
When I have led grief groups that have met into and beyond the holidays, I have always noticed a “before and after” look on the faces of participants. In the days before Thanksgiving, it is almost as though they prepared for the onset of the holiday season by strapping onto their backs an extra 50-pound bag of anxiety, fear, and worry.
But when we gather again after the New Year, everyone looks a little different—most look better, but everyone looks relieved. In honest moments of debriefing about the holidays, most agree that what they are feeling is an overwhelming sense of relief that it is all over for another year. And, in case anyone needs permission, it is okay to admit that we feel relief when the holidays are history, especially when we are grieving.
Relief is surely not exactly what the angels had in mind when they proclaimed the good news of great joy that is Christmas. But in truth, we have created a secular culture around the holidays that is more about worldly celebration than sacred rejoicing. We set ourself up for emotional disappointment with expectations that have little to do with reality, seasonal experiences that never quite measure up, and gatherings that leave us feeling dissatisfied, wanting more or better or whatever. Small wonder that relief is usually so welcome.
When we grieve, navigating the holidays may feel a little like a marathon. We pace ourself and conserve our energy as we encounter the twists and turns of seasonal pain, the hills of grief, and the challenges of sometimes complicated families. Small wonder that we are both exhausted and relieved when we have stayed the course and finished the race for yet another year.
Relief is a good thing because it shows us what we are made of. It means that some tension has eased or a situation has been resolved, or that we have measured up in the steadfast endurance department. Many of us feel like we have spent most or part of the holiday season holding our breath. Relief is about giving ourself permission to exhale.
When we step away and take a backward look at our holiday experience, we see that we have grown through our grief. We have proven to ourself that we have the stamina and stuff to withstand a challenging time of the year without our loved one. We give ourself a pat on the back because we are still upright—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We smile and whisper “well done”, “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1).
God applauds us on our victory lap. God honors our courage with new hope and a larger vision for the future. God renews our strength and points us toward the finish line of grief. God gives us the spiritual encouragement we need to see us through to the other side of grief. God understands our heart and our prayers for relief. And through it all, God is faithful, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress” (Psalm 25:16-17).
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
1 Corinthians 10:13 NRSV