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Podcast: Navigating Grief during the Holidays (Nancy Guthrie)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Loss, Suffering, and Grace

Nancy Guthrie, author of What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts), discusses dealing with grief over the holidays. She reflects on her own experiences of great loss and suffering, shares what God has taught her about his healing grace in her own life, and offers advice to family members and friends eager to love those struggling with deep sadness this holiday season.

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What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts)

Nancy Guthrie

Practical and down-to-earth, this short guide will equip you to come alongside a loved one who is hurting and offer comfort in ways that really help.

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Full Transcript

01:39 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Well Nancy, thank you so much for joining me on The Crossway Podcast today.

Nancy Guthrie
So happy to get to talk to you and your listeners.

01:46 - Why Christmas Can Be Hard for the Grieving

Matt Tully
So the Christmas season is here and it can be a time of such joy and warmth as we gather with family and friends, usually around good food and music and traditions; and obviously for the Christian, all of that is only heightened by the awareness of the theological significance of Christmas. We’re celebrating when the Son of God entered into human history in order to bring us back to God; and yet I think for many these feelings are also accompanied by feelings of sadness and loss and pain often because a loved one is no longer present, whether that’s due to death or estrangement or simply distance. The holidays can make those feeling all the more acute, in these particular seasons, even years later. Have you experienced any of those kinds of feelings around Christmas time?

Nancy Guthrie
Absolutely. When you think about the way we greet each other this time of year we say, Happy Thanksgiving! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! And if you think about somebody, especially somebody who’s going through grief over the loss of a loved one, that can just feel like such a burden. Maybe even an impossibility. Like, Why is everybody telling me to be happy when I am not happy, when I have a great deal of sadness? And as I try to think about why the holidays are so hard when you’re grieving, I think there’s a number of factors. For one thing, holidays are so saturated with tradition. And so at the holidays, whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, those are filled with family memories and when somebody in your family has died—when you are putting up the Christmas tree without them and there’s all of those ornaments that bring memories, or you’re setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner and there is a place where that person you loved always sat and that place is empty—facing all of those things without that person can create so much deep sadness at this time of year.

04:16 - Personal History

Matt Tully
You and your husband and your family have had your own share of deep sadness and grief and loss. I wonder if you could share what that’s been like for you and your family for those who aren’t as familiar with your story.

Nancy Guthrie
My husband David and I have a son, Matt, who is now 29. We also had a daughter named Hope. And we had a son named Gabriel. And both Hope and Gabriel were born with a rare metabolic disorder and lived just a short time. And when I look back, Matt, at that especially that first Thanksgiving—Hope was born the week of Thanksgiving and she lived for six months—and when I think about entering that holiday season, that first one after she died, oh my goodness! I just wanted to go stick my head under the covers and say, Let me know when the new year begins because this just feels unbearable.

That Thanksgiving week we were facing what would have been her first birthday and our way of dealing with it was we made very different plans than we’d ever done before. At that point I was not anxious to be around my family, so we planned this little trip, the three of us, and there were some really fun things about it. I remember sitting there on Thanksgiving day and realizing you cannot escape the sadness. It goes with us wherever we go. You can’t travel it away, you can’t eat it away, you can’t drink it away, and you can’t spend it away. I think all these things we try to do to soothe our sorrow. It’s just there and you have to deal with it.

But for us that first Thanksgiving was hard. My picture of myself that first Christmas is just standing at the sink preparing that meal with tears running down my face. It was just so difficult to remember how she had been there the previous Christmas and now she was gone. And then we faced that again a second time with our son Gabriel. But after Hope died, I made five hundred Christmas ornaments with her picture on it. We had taken this picture of her when she was with us that first Christmas. And it might sound terrible, but it actually was very sweet. She was very small and underweight and we put her down inside this stocking that said Hope on it. And we took her picture and I made five hundred Christmas ornaments with that picture on it after she died and gave it to people. And that was actually something that brought me a lot of comfort that first Christmas—to give those to friends.

Hope died twenty years ago this year, and still a friend will send me a text—a picture of the Hope ornament that she’s put on her tree—which is so sweet to me. You see, sometimes we think, Well, I don’t want to mention it because maybe that person is at a holiday gathering and they seem happy and you think, Maybe they might not be thinking about it and I don’t want to make them think about it, maybe make them cry. The thing is, they are always thinking about it. And it’s like a computer program that’s constantly running in the back of their mind. And so while we’re afraid, Okay, I’ll make them cry, I’ll make them sad if I bring it up, if I say that person’s name, when the truth is they’re just wishing someone would be willing to talk about the thing and the person that they most want to talk about. And yet most people avoid it.

So I guess one thing I would say to people as you’re thinking about trying to be a good friend or good family member to someone who’s grieving is be willing to talk about it. Say that person’s name. Go ahead and voice the fact that you feel really sad that that person is not there with you this year.

08:54 - Is It Ever Right to Not Talk about It?

Matt Tully
I wonder if some of the fear in those moments for the person trying to be a good friend to someone who is grieving is maybe not knowing what they want. Are there ever situations when you might not want someone to bring that up, or it might be inappropriate to bring something like that up?

Nancy Guthrie
Well, it is a tricky thing regarding grief because people are different. But I can tell you this: my husband David and I now host weekend retreats for couples who’ve lost children. We’ll have our 37th retreat in a couple of weeks. And when these grieving parents get together—and especially like this one coming up it’ll be right around the holidays here—and I promise you one thing they’re going to want to talk about is their fear about getting with their extended family over the holidays and their fear that nobody’s going to mention the person who died. That it’s just going to be too awkward. So are there times people don’t want to talk about it? Yes, certainly there are those times and those people. But I would just say overwhelmingly from my interactions with grieving people most of them want to keep hearing that person’s name. And it is specific about the name. This was interesting. When I wrote my book What Grieving People Wish You Knew, I didn’t want to rely solely on my own experience so I did an online survey of grieving people and I asked them, What’s something people wrote to you or said to you that was significant, meaningful? What’s something someone did for you? And then my third question was, What do you wish people understood about grief that they don’t seem to understand? And there were two things that came really loud and clear through the answers when people told me what they really wanted. And over and over they said, I want to keep hearing that person’s name. I mean if you think about it, when someone dies oftentimes we start referring to them just with a personal pronoun or a title like, Your mom. Your sister. Your friend. Rather than Barbara.

11:08 - The Importance of a Name

Matt Tully
What do you think is behind that? What’s so important about the name?

Nancy Guthrie
It says, This was a person. This was a real person. And I remember that person. And when someone says their name, if you think about it, when that person is alive maybe you’re saying their name twenty times a day. But then after they die you just don’t even hear that person’s name. But to use their actual name somehow esteems your loss in it. It somehow demonstrates, I remember. And this person you loved, I loved him too and I miss him, too. And it just speaks to the reality of that person because when someone you love dies, your greatest fear is that everyone’s going to forget. And I think this is especially true with those who lose young children, that the world will just go on and everyone will just forget that that person was even there. And so if you talk about your dad, your mom, your child, in a general sense, it’s more about that person’s relationship with that person. But when you use that person’s name there’s something very vivid and affectionate about just saying their name. And people who are grieving find that very comforting.

12:35 - What Grieving People Really Want

Matt Tully
That’s so helpful. It’s so easy to want to push aside and not think about the loss. But really that’s the opposite of what the grieving person likely needs in those moments.

Nancy Guthrie
Now here’s what I say to the grieving person, in that regard, is that perhaps the best thing you can do for your extended family is actually tell them ahead of time that you want to have a time when you are together to talk about that person. So I often tell people, Set up your family and friends for success in this regard. Often grieving people, myself included, expect that everybody’s going to read our minds and know what’s going to be helpful or meaningful to us. And I’ll have to admit that sometimes with my family—it just shows you what a sinner I am actually—but it’s like I’m expecting they won’t bring it up. And then I get this twisted satisfaction about being right that they didn’t. And I find myself unhappy with them, which is really crazy. Far better for the person who’s grieving to send a little note to friends or family beforehand and just say, When we get together, I know it’s going to be awkward, but I want you to know that I want to talk about Michael. And maybe there would even be a time around the Thanksgiving dinner or maybe even on Christmas morning or Christmas Eve that we could spend some time talking about our memories of him and the things we miss about him. And what that does is it just sets everybody up for success, right? Because you’ve been straightforward. They know that you want this and they probably want to talk about him too, but they’re feeling unsure about it. So letting people know ahead of a family gathering or some other kind of holiday event that people might be wondering–it could be really helpful to just let them know, I want to talk about him. And that’s going to really help me.

15:00 - A Christian Responsibility to Share Suffering

Matt Tully
I’m struck that whether it’s with family or even church family, being willing to say their name and to talk about these things, it does require a willingness to be involved and be in that pain to some extent and live in that with the person who is grieving. Do you think there’s a uniquely Christian responsibility that we have as brothers and sisters in Christ to enter into that with one another?

Nancy Guthrie
“To bear each other’s burdens” is Scriptural. To “weep with those who weep,” of course the other side of that is “rejoice with those who rejoice.” And grieving people really like the “weep with those who weep” side of it. But oftentimes grieving people give themselves a pass on rejoicing with those who rejoice. They would say, I’m too sad to do that. I need you to weep with me, but you can’t expect me to rejoice with you. And that’s not really the case, but certainly yes, to be brothers and sisters with each other is to come alongside each other in sorrow. And it’s the alongside that I think is very significant. It’s not standing over, preaching at, or poking at. It’s alongside.

You see, we get all uptight. We wonder what we’re going to say to that person and we think, Okay, I want to say something meaningful, spiritual, memorable, and helpful. But a grieving person doesn’t expect any of the people around them to come around them and say something that’s going to somehow make it all okay, or is going to somehow present them with a viewpoint or perspective that’s going to fix everything. Actually, what they just want to know is that they’re not alone. And so it means a great deal to have people come alongside who aren’t presuming that they have something to say that would make it okay. But instead they’re far more humble than that. Maybe they even say, I don’t know what to say. Which often is the best thing to say because it is very humble. It communicates, The gravity of your loss is so significant that I don’t presume to have words that would just take it away. But I care about you and I want you to know I care about you and I want you to know that I’m here beside you willingly entering into your sorrow with you. And I remember that person. And there are times I feel sad.

You may wonder, How am I going to bring this up with someone? Well, you know maybe it’s something as sweet and simple as saying, You know, every time I drive past that barbecue place, I know your husband loved that place. I remember meeting him there one time and man, we had the best barbecue sandwich. He enjoyed it so much. I just want you to know that every time I pass there I think about him and I miss him. And it just makes me wonder, what are the times of the week or the places or the experiences that make you miss him the most? An open-ended question like that is better than simply the question that comes most natural to us. The question that comes most natural is, How are you? And when you ask someone How are you? they can feel like they have to give a report. And you know that the person who’s asking the question what they really want to hear is, I’m good, or I’m better. But maybe that’s not the reality. And it’s so hard to know how to quantify because maybe some days are great and some days you feel nothing but despair. And so to try to put into words How are you? can be fine. But when you do something like that open ended question, that says to that person, I want to hear about what your grief is like these days. And I want to enter into this with you and understand it the way you’re experiencing it. And that’s a great gift to give to a grieving person.

19:35 - Unhelpfully Relating to the Situation

Matt Tully
I’m struck that a couple of the examples you’ve shared include some element of the friend expressing your own feelings and thoughts about this person as well, and having that be a door into hearing more from the grieving person. So what would be the line between that and people trying to comfort a friend by drawing parallels to their own grief in other ways? Like, You lost a child. I lost a child, too. Or, I lost a father. And sometimes that can maybe be more harmful than it is helpful. Speak to that. What guidance would you have on that front?

Nancy Guthrie
The goal is always to elevate or esteem that person’s loss rather than diminish it. And sometimes the effect of telling a story immediately about your own loss is basically suggesting, You know what? This thing you’ve experienced is very common. And so it really shouldn’t hurt that much. There’s lots of people who’ve gone through that. So it can have the effect of diminishing it. So if our goal instead is to esteem their loss we might discipline our words and we invite them to talk about their loss.

I can remember times when people began to tell us stories about other people who had something similar happened to them than me and David and their motives were good. But I just remember feeling like, You know what? You don’t understand how heavy the load of sorrow is on me and how much this loss has taken up the whole of my insides and all of my energy and focus. And by telling me that story it’s feeling a little bit to me like you’re wanting me to feel sad for them, or to give some energy to thinking about their loss. And the truth is, a lot of times—especially the freshly grieving person—just doesn’t have space for it.

I was speaking about this recently and an old man came up to me afterwards and he said he wanted to differ with what I said. He said, But you know, I’ve talked to some friends who’ve told me they’ve found it really helpful to know that I’ve been where they are. And there is some truth to that. I think that comes with time, and relationship, and with them asking you to talk about those things. So what I’m talking about is that immediate short-term conversation where rather than listening or just coming alongside we fill up the awkward silence with a story about ourselves or someone else that wasn’t really invited. So there is a differentiation there because over time your friendship with someone—the fact that you have been through loss—the Lord is going to use that in your lives and in your relationship. But I would just warn you, don’t always be quick to suggest that you get exactly how they feel or that whatever worked for you or whatever experience you had is what they are experiencing. Because once again, it diminishes their grief. It just communicates that theirs is just like everybody else’s.

And instead, here’s the truth: you don’t know how they feel. They’re a different person and their loss might have some similarities to yours, but there’s a huge number of differences as well. And so for you to not presume that you understand everything about their loss actually esteems their loss as unique and significant to them.

23:47 - Ministering to Others in Grief

Matt Tully
So as you think about the time that you’ve spent working with GriefShare, this organization committed to walking alongside families in their grief, is there anything that you learned about grief and about how to minister to others who are grieving since you started working with so many families and couples in that program?

Nancy Guthrie
I’ve learned to be a listener, not rushing in with my own story, and not presuming I get it. But I think also looking for an opportunity not to push people to get better fast. Not to suggest to them that there’s some kind of timeline or that they just need to move on or whatever. Instead to suggest to them, *You know what? Go ahead, give yourself over to some sadness for a while, ask God to work in you through his word by his Spirit in the midst of that sadness. That means you have to be opening up his word, or putting yourself under the preaching of the word, so that you’re receiving it and so it can be worked. So let yourself be sad. Let the tears flow because your tears are a reflection of the worth and value of that person and how much you love that person. So go ahead and give yourself over to it. Tears don’t reflect a lack of faith.

But at the same time, Iask God to be at work in that, to do a healing work that only he can do and the healing work that he has promised to do. Expect that with time, and as you spend time in his word and as you process this grief through talking, through tears, through beginning to maybe even serve other people out of this broken place in your life, expect that God is going to do a work of healing. Don’t expect that you’re always going to feel as sad forever as you do right now. But instead expect that God is going to do a work of healing in your life and that the day will come when—although you’ll still remember and there will still occasionally be tears—the grief won’t be quite as heavy, and it won’t have as much power in your life as it might have right now. Expect that the day is going to come when the more dominant note in your life can be joy instead of great sorrow.

26:39 - Hope In the Midst of Hard

Matt Tully
Was it hard to believe that when you were in the midst of it?

Nancy Guthrie
Oh yes. I can just remember some of those low times that I thought, I’ll never be happy again. I just could not imagine that I would get better. I always cringe when I’ll hear someone who’s lost a child say to someone who’s newly lost a child, You’re always going to feel this way. You’re always going to feel this way. I feel like what they’re trying to say is, You’re always going to love your child, you’re always going to remember your child, and there is a new kind of life you’re entering into on the other side of that loss. But I always cringe because I feel like what the person who is in so much pain is hearing is that, You are always going to hurt. As much as you hurt right now, you’re going to hurt that much forever. And that’s just not true. Or at least it doesn’t have to be true. What is really hard, and I think particularly hard in losing a child, is that it is your grief over losing someone you love that keeps you feeling close to that person. And in the midst of grief that feels good because you miss them and you want to feel close to them. And so at some point on the journey of grief you face this really difficult decision. And that is, Am I going to allow the grief to have less of a hold on me? In other words, I won’t be as sad as much, but that also means that I will miss out on some of that closeness that grief brings to me. Or am I going to just keep giving so much of myself to this sorrow? Or another way to think about that question is that the day comes that you have to make a decision, Am I going to continue to give so much of my energy, focus, and emotion to someone who can no longer benefit from it? Or am I going to make a turn, a pivot, and begin to give more of myself, my energy, my emotion, and my focus to people who can benefit from it? And that’s a really hard turn to make because when you do it feels like that person you love—the person you don’t want anybody else to forget—is slipping away a little bit. That person isn’t slipping away, but it feels that way. It can even feel to the grieving person like a betrayal of that person. Like, I was out to make sure nobody else forgot you and now I’m seeming to loosen that tether. But it’s not a betrayal.

Matt Tully
How did you know you were approaching that decision? Was that something you just sensed, that you had a choice in front of you? How did you identify that?

Nancy Guthrie
For me it came in just realizing that I had another living child here who needed a mother who was giving him her best. And to come to the place to realize, Okay. My children, Hope and Gabriel, they can’t benefit from all of this anymore. But I have a child here who can. And a great tragedy would be to continue to give so much of myself to these two who can’t benefit from it and in the process of that lose or estrange the one who’s here. And that was just a big wake up call to me. And I just knew at that point, I have to make a turn. And I just decided to do that.

30:48 - Advice for Pastors

Matt Tully
What advice would you offer to pastors as they think about leading their churches and even preaching sermons and doing announcements as they seek to keep in mind those who are grieving in their churches?

Nancy Guthrie
Well it’s not a bad idea to have a time, maybe it’s in the service that’s at the very end of the year, that maybe you just list off the list of names of people who have entered into the presence of Christ, but left your church family’s presence over the previous year. And all their loved ones will begin to weep. But don’t think that that means you did the wrong thing. I mean those will be tears of joy that the person they love is not forgotten and it’s been acknowledged. So I think that could be a beautiful thing.

But I’m always slow to put too much pressure on pastors in terms of doing specific things. I want to encourage pastors that the very best thing you do for grieving people is to preach God’s word. Don’t underestimate the power of your weekly preaching to be exactly what grieving people need. They need to hear about God’s sovereign rule of the universe and of their lives. I mean, the biggest questions grieving people have are regarding God’s sovereignty and they’re trying to figure that out in terms of God’s involvement in the loss of someone they love. You need to understand that they’re hearing everything now through this lens of their loss. Every song they sing in the service, they’re hearing differently now than they used to before. The words sound different. The commitments being articulated in the song sound more costly. And the promises of eternity in the presence of Christ sound more lovely, more desirable. And so those things might move them to tears. Sometimes if they’re crying in church, someone will think they must not be doing well. They’ll say, How are they doing? Oh, they were crying a lot during church, as if that means they’re not doing well. Tears don’t necessarily mean that. Tears mean that they’re processing and applying the truth of what’s being preached, or sung about, or read in the passage. A lot of times when that truth meets up with a difficult reality of life it erupts in tears. So don’t assume just because someone’s been crying in your service that they aren’t dealing with the loss. Well, it probably means they’re dealing with it. And it’s hard.

34:08 - Comfort to those Overwhelmed with Grief this Season

Matt Tully
As a last question to close us here, what would you say to someone who’s listening right now and is feeling the pain of loss, and maybe the pain feels truly overwhelming to them and they’re not sure how they will cope with this holiday season. What would you want to say to them?

Nancy Guthrie
First of all I would say this is the holiday season to maybe not do everything the way you’ve always done it. Because a lot of those traditions do bring pain. Don’t feel obligated—don’t let your family force you into feeling obligated—because this is the way we’ve always done it. Maybe you want to try something different this year. But as I said earlier, be aware wherever you go, whatever you do, the sadness will likely go with you. And so don’t let that surprise you. I would look for some allies, whether it’s in your family or someone you can have handy on the phone, to talk to when things get difficult in the midst of some of these social situations or family situations. Someone who is a safe person to process with.

But then I think specifically sometimes as everybody is saying, Happy Thanksgiving! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! and we just want to pull the covers over our head, expect that you’re going to feel sad. Because there will be times of really deeply missing that person you love. But I would also say, be open to joy. There are aspects of the truth of God becoming flesh and entering into this world to dwell among us that help. And when we think about what that means—why he did this—we we recognize that this baby who was laid in a manger is one day going to be hung on a cross. Why did he enter into the world knowing that that was going to be the case? It’s because he has come to take sin and death upon himself. There really is cause for joy in the midst of this Advent season for you because we know that the reason Jesus came the first time was to do everything necessary to one day put an end to sin and death. And even as we sing, Joy to the world! The Lord is come! He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, as you sing those words let them fill your heart with anticipation that that day is really coming! The Christ who came as a baby is going to come as a conquering King and when he does, death is going to be gone for good. He’s going to call the body of that person you love so much out of their grave, he’s going to fashion for them a resurrection body fit for living forever with him in the new heavens and the new earth. See the holidays as the center point in which all of that has become your solid hope for the future and take hold of it today.

37:32 - Closing

Matt Tully
Amen! Thank you, Nancy, for that wise, biblical encouragement and for sharing a little bit of your own experiences with grief and your own experiences working with families who are grieving and just what you’ve learned from them. We appreciate you taking the time to talk today.

Nancy Guthrie
You’re welcome, Matt. Thanks so much.

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