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The original coming of Christ made angels, shepherds, and Magi rejoice. It also made people weep as baby boys were slaughtered in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-18). Advent, then and now, can be a time of confusion and grief.
“To some people, the approaching Christmas season spells loneliness, darkness, even pain,” Pastor Irma Janzen wrote 15 years ago. “They don’t look forward to it. It can be the most difficult season of the year” (What if Christmas isn’t Merry? Dec. 4, 2002, The Messenger).
“Some people in our congregations get overtired because they are too busy. Others overspend and feel guilty,” Irma said. She wrote that “commercialism and media make much out of Christmas,” while Christmas reminds some people how relationships have broken down. These are words to hear.
Family gatherings at Christmas reveal tensions, weaknesses as well as strengths, in how members relate to each other. Such gatherings amid strained relationships are mixed times of joy, stress, and grief. In the midst of this, Christ’s grace and the Church are much needed.
How do the actions of the Church and the sermons you hear at Christmas speak to your grief and strained relationships? How do they miss them?
O Lord, Christmas creates tension for us. We are sometimes hurt and confused. Help us to find your grace. Help us to feel and know that we are not alone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“This isn’t the end of the World
…but you can see it from here!”
La Crete, Alberta
I chuckled as I held up the T-shirt with this caption on it. My husband Glen and I were Christmas shopping, and this had caught my eye. As I stood in this store in the community of La Crete, located only 150 miles from the North-West Territories, I reflected on all that had transpired since we had made that 1,400-mile trip to the far north some four months ago.
We had received a call to pastor the La Crete Christian Fellowship (LCCF) early the previous year. Glen had taught at Steinbach Bible College for about 20 years and felt it was time for a change. After much prayer and discussion, we decided to move and take up this new challenge.
Resignations from our jobs, selling the “dream house” Glen had designed and built, and getting our grown children used to the idea of their parents moving so far away were all traumatic signposts on the way to the move.
Finally all was settled. We would leave immediately after the EMC Convention in July. Our goods left for northern Alberta three weeks earlier and we moved in with my hospitable sister and brother-in-law.
At the Convention’s first session Glen’s brother informed us that their mother had been rushed to a city hospital. In the busy emergency room we talked to her briefly, holding her cold hands in ours, feeling helpless in the face of her obvious pain. The shocked family consented to a surgical procedure that was done that afternoon. We went back to the convention with the assurance that all was well. But the Lord took her home later that evening. Our stay in Manitoba was extended so that we could attend the funeral and grieve with our father and family.
The trip North some days later was a quiet time of grieving, as well as of anticipation as we wondered what our new life would be like. The drive seemed endless through miles and miles of open prairie and farmland, forests, and marshes. A ferry took us across the wide, swirling Peace River.
More farmland, interspersed with fragrant woods of spruce and aspen crowded the road. Then La Crete, a town of about 1,000 at that time, popped into view. Agriculture and logging-related businesses, various dealerships, and a few restaurants lined the main street. We had certainly reached a frontier town, which appeared to be self-sufficient, growing and vibrant. There were mobile homes everywhere, although many permanent buildings had been erected and many more were under construction.
In the next few days we moved into the manse—a trailer, naturally! But an unusual one, since it had been set on a basement, providing welcome extra space. Our church people were very much involved with moving in our furniture, helping us unpack, bringing food and generally making us feel welcome.
LCCF had an attendance of around 375 in winter with at least 100 less in summer when many people went “out” for vacation. So the smaller numbers helped us to sort out names and faces, although it was still a bewildering challenge. Everyone knew us and we didn’t know anyone!
Inevitably I felt the emptiness of leaving our children, the loss of a very dear mother-in-law, and the feeling of uselessness since I had “no job” while my husband reveled in his new work and daily challenges. Homesickness set in.
Glen wrote in his journal for Wednesday, 24 July 1996: “Betty is very lonely…tomorrow will be a different day!” Little did he know how “different” the next few days would be!
Since we were so far north, daylight extended well into the night. So, rather late Friday evening we took our tennis racquets to the courts near our home. I am not a good player, but running after the ball and even getting it across the net occasionally was a good workout.
But I tried too hard! While backing up too fast trying to reach the ball, I lost my balance and fell. I put out my hand to break my fall and felt an excruciating pain in my wrist as my body hit the pavement. At the hospital in Fort Vermilion, my badly broken wrist was set and pain became my companion.
But I also had another Companion. As news of my accident spread, our new church family swung into action as they personified the love of Jesus in wonderful ways. It was heart-warming and humbling to welcome the many new friends who dropped by, always with love and usually with food.
They organized bringing suppers four times a week for most of the summer; they brought fresh garden produce and goods for the freezer; they came to help with cleaning and offered to help in any way that was needed. Their prayers and their love carried us.
Glen was preparing talks for the church’s Youth Retreat to be held in three weeks, but helped as needed. He so appreciated the meals that came.
I spent most of the day and a good part of each night in our recliner. The pain seemed worse when lying down, and so I would sit up and try to fall asleep before a painkiller wore off. Bathing and dressing were an ordeal that left me soaked in perspiration.
As we drove out to the Youth Retreat with friends, I looked forward to the change of scene. We moved into our cozy quarters. And, very soon, Glen was busy studying. I decided to go for a walk and relished the beauty of the lake with the loons calling, the lush green beside the trail, and could almost ignore the pain in my wrist.
Returning to camp, I missed seeing a depression in the grass and went down. I was thankful that I had not hit my arm and the cast was intact. My right ankle hurt and I was annoyed that I had sprained it. As soon as the pain subsided, I would get up and hobble back to our cabin.
But I couldn’t!
When we returned home, X-rays revealed that a bone was broken. I listened in unbelief as the doctor said I would need another cast. Because the foot was badly swollen, I was told to ice it for a few days, then return to the hospital.
The phone woke us early on the morning that my leg cast was to be applied. We received the shocking news that my much-loved older brother back in Manitoba had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and was not expected to survive till evening.
As the second cast was put in place I felt a swirl of emotions: anxiety, helplessness, a deep sense of aloneness, interspersed with a desire to giggle at my awkwardly funny dilemma. But practical reality hit hard when I tried to maneuver from the wheelchair into the car and up the steps into our home.
Since the two casts were on opposite sides of my body, crutches were useless. I was not to put any weight on my injured foot for several days. A wheelchair did not fit into our compact trailer’s floor plan.
In addition to the physical pain, there was a sense of loss and the deep hurt of not being able to be with my family during this time of grief. Pain seemed to envelope me.
A Church Family
But again the church family was there for us. Because I was unable to move from our home, some 30 of them squeezed into our living room for a time of Scripture reading, prayer, singing, and sharing.
When I looked around through my tears, I saw the tears on their faces as they grieved with us, even though they had never met my brother. This was our family! The love present in that room was like feeling the loving arms of Christ around me. I was not alone!
Now, even though the above was almost 21 years ago, it is still a joy to celebrate my mobility. Physiotherapy and exercises did wonders for my wrist and ankle. A patient, understanding husband helped me work through my feelings of uselessness and into a meaningful niche in our ministry. But the greatest joy of all was being part of a church that personified the love of Jesus by their actions in everyday life.
Betty Koop (EFC Steinbach) has served in many roles: as a secretary for many years, as the wife of a college professor and pastor, as a mother and a grandmother. She previously served as a columnist and in the national office as an archives worker.
When my one-month-old daughter Eloise passed away unexpectedly last September, the comments and questions started rolling in. Everyone means well, hoping to say something that will bring some level of comfort and peace. But not all comments bring the comfort intended.
I’ve heard all of these statements at some point in the past six months. Some might make you cringe, and some of these statements you may have said before (and that’s okay). The point is not to make you feel bad or shame you for things you’ve said in the past, but perhaps help you better navigate interacting with a grieving parent in the future.
I’m not a grief expert by any means, but here are some phrases/questions said to me and my husband that have stung:
“At least she’s in heaven.”
There is no at least in losing your child. There is no bright side. I’ve heard variations of this comment several times:
“It must feel bittersweet…”
“At least she’s with Jesus…”
“At least she’s in a better place…”
Am I grateful that Eloise lives in heaven and is rejoicing in her Saviour? Definitely. Am I grateful that someday I will be reunited with my daughter in heaven and spend eternity together? Absolutely. But this hope I have doesn’t lessen the sting of losing her much too soon. I’m always going to wish she could be in my arms.
“At least you still have each other.”
I agree. I am blessed to have my husband in my life during this time, and I think he’d say the same about me. Having someone to grieve with who completely understands and identifies with what I’m feeling is a comfort. I know this journey of grief would feel unwalkable without him. But we still lost the biggest love of our lives. We loved being a family of three, and we both hate that we’re back to a family of just two. We’re incomplete, broken.
“God has a plan.”
We will always wish Eloise’s journey included living a long and happy life on earth with us. I don’t like this turn of events, and I’d like to request a different plan (pretty please?). I know God doesn’t necessarily cause evil to happen, and that he is always working for our good and his glory through our tragic experiences. I pray that someday we’ll be able to see the hand of God working in our lives during this time. But I’ll be wrestling with God on this giant “why” question for a long time.
“You’re still young. You can have more kids.”
We do plan on having more kids, and that’s something to look forward to. I know that future children will bring us joy, but I will always look at my family knowing it’s not complete on this earth. The hole she left can never be filled. Future babies we have aren’t replacement babies. Keep in mind, also, that the statement “you can have more children” is not true for everyone.
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
Does this statement really bring comfort? When it was said to me, it made me question how well I was coping with losing my child. Should I be handling this better? Why do I break down so often? Losing my daughter is way more than I can handle, but I know God doesn’t deserve my blame for her death. God stands beside us, even through our darkest moments. And thankfully, he is a God of grace, and his new mercies every day ensure that I can continue walking through life.
“I know how you feel.”
I hear this comment often, usually followed by a lengthy story of their loss: “I had a miscarriage…” or “My friend died last year….” Instead of sharing stories of your losses, make the moment about the grieving parent in front of you, not yourself. It can be hurtful when someone tries to compare their loss to yours. It can feel like they’re trying to change the conversation or take the focus off your loss.
It’s also important to note that losing a child is a unique experience. It’s different than losing a friend, a grandparent, a parent, etc. Not that those losses are any less significant—they’re just different. Unless you’ve also lost a child, it’s impossible to fully identify with a parent who has lost a child.
“You’ll be a much stronger, more compassionate person because of your loss.”
I certainly have more compassion for others, especially those who are grieving. I’ve also developed a great deal of strength out of necessity. But I also lost a big part of myself. I’m more anxious, less carefree, less optimistic, and more emotional. I don’t always love the person I’ve become since losing my daughter.
“At least it happened early on.”
Losing your child is devastating no matter how old they are.
“What can I do for you?”
Too general. Try instead: “Can I bring you dinner Tuesday night?” or “I’m planning to mow your lawn this weekend.” The more specific, the better. Especially in the first couple months after my daughter’s death, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t even know what kind of help to ask for. It’s best to make a specific offer, and keep making those offers well into the future too. The meals and favours tend to stop after the first couple months, but grieving parents could use favours long after that.
Nothing at all
Don’t avoid a grieving parent just because you don’t know what to say. I’ve had people physically change directions just to avoid me. I would much rather you risk saying the wrong thing than completely avoid me. Even a simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way and lets me know that you care and are acknowledging my daughter’s death.
Take heart! There are some things you can say to a grieving parent. Here are a few suggestions:
I’m so sorry.
I’m praying for you.
No parent should have to go through this.
My favourite memory of your son/daughter is when…
I’d love to hear about your son/daughter.
I think about you and your son/daughter often.
Your son/daughter will be missed.
I’m sure you miss him/her so much.
When in doubt, just listen, be present, express your sympathy, and know you’re not going to have the magic words to make a grieving parent feel better. Your efforts to interact with us and walk beside us are appreciated and noticed. We’ll do our best to give you plenty of grace, and we hope you give us grace, too, as we plod through the rocky
and unpredictable lifelong road of grief.
Angelyn Kuiper is a writer and marketing specialist who works for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She’s passionate about finding ways to love our neighbours in tangible ways and empowering the church to respond to God’s call to let justice flow like a river. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a mom to daughter Eloise in heaven and wife to husband Michael. She attends Faith Community CRC in Wyoming, Michigan. Her article first appeared in the CRC News (March 29, 2017).
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference