How should you treat a grieving family at Christmas?


UPDATE: Over on CT Kay has a longer form discussion of the pain of Christmas and her plea that people “Stop Sending Cheery Christmas Cards.” Again, I understand her suffering all too well and appreciate that many feel as she does. Her advice can be helpful and healing and an appropriate default position. But I am happy to receive cheery cards. So send ’em my way! And let us celebrate together our children and God’s Son.


This past week Kay Warren posted a reasonable rant on Facebook. For those who do not remember who she is, Kay is the wife of the mega-pastor Rick Warren. They lost their son to depression and suicide about 18 months ago. Since that time they both have gone up considerably in my estimation as they have dealt publicly and privately with their grief and dealt directly with depression and suicide, topics that many Christian communities refuse to acknowledge. I am grateful and respect her writings over the last year and a half. This week she ranted, reasonably, as I said, about the insensitivity of Christmas cards and I have to say I do not really agree with her.

Ugh. It’s THAT time of year again – the “Hap, Happiest Season of All.” Unless, of course, you’re grieving the loss of your child. There are painful reminders every single day of what has been lost, but the avalanche of Christmas cards sent by well-meaning family, friends, acquaintances, strangers and random businesses you’ve frequented take the knife that is in your heart and give it a hard twist. Believe me – I know the intent of every card sender – I’ve sent my fair share of cards through the years – so I am certain that no one ever MEANS to wound or cause pain. But on behalf of grieving parents (and others), let me give you a few words of advice: please, please, please be sensitive and look at your card through the eyes of the person on the receiving end.

OK, this isn’t the point that I really disagree with. I mean, I too have felt that pain and knife in the heart that comes with seeing other people’s Christmas cards and holiday greetings. And yes, in an ideal world it would be nice if we all would be able to know and consider how others are going to receive a card, picture, Instagram post, or Facebook update ahead of time and adapt it accordingly. But that isn’t really reasonable. More importantly, I don’t think taking that approach, as helpful as she has intended her advice to be, is helpful to those grieving.

I certainly agree that it is wonderful and helpful when others remember how difficult this time of the year, and birthdays, and holidays, and first days of school, are to those who are grieving. The cards that come with notes letting us know that they are praying for us, giving thanks that Mack was in their lives, and other words of comfort are just that, comforting and gratefully received. I understand when [pullquote]But the cards came uninvited into my mailbox every day. I hadn’t thought about the cards – hadn’t pegged them as emotional triggers ahead of time, and so when I opened the first batch, a wave of shock washed over me.[/pullquote] Warren says that she hadn’t thought about cards as an emotional trigger. My guess is, if she is anything like me, then we never know what is going to be a trigger. I have been struck by the fact that anything can bring tears to my eyes, a halt to my throat. I can look at a tool and think “I bought this after Mack died” (he used to help me with all the chores and repairs around the house) and have to stop and push back the emotions before I can move on. Everything is now categorized in my life as BMD and AMD. If I cannot know when and what will trigger my sorrow, how can I expect others to know?

Obviously the pictures of a “beautiful, happy, INTACT family” is going to make us think of our own loss, how can it not? But Elizabeth and I have tried to be very intentional as well that in our moment of sorrow to be thankful for the fact that others do have this beautiful, intact family. For example, this week a former student whose marriage I performed sent us their holiday card. My whole family was invited to their wedding and the reception and we all had a blast dancing and laughing. This young couple now have a beautiful little girl and their picture on the card is gorgeous. I could not be happier for them! And I would be sad if they had not included us in their joy by following Kay’s advice and excluded us from their holiday card list, no matter how well meaning such an action would have been.

I want to make it clear, I understand Kay’s pain and grief and I certainly do agree that, where possible, we should all try and be considerate of others when we send notes, cards, post to Facebook, etc. I am frankly appalled by how many people have responded to her honest and truthful posts with trite and bitter comments such as “a pastor’s wife isn’t supposed to act that way,” etc. It is her open, honest writing that has been so beneficial to so many of us.

Elizabeth and I both believe that it helps us to remain a part of this living, growing, and loving world by seeing the Facebook pictures, posts, and receiving holiday cards. Yes, I will cry, as I did when writing this post and trying to find a picture of the family to post. (You will notice I finally chose not to post a family picture at all.) But it is also up to me to choose which cards I open, which sites I will visit, and ultimately I choose to celebrate the lives we have: past, present, and future. Mack has and always will be a part of our lives. And I want to remain a part of your lives too. So if you send a card, by all means follow Kay’s advice, consider a note that acknowledges our grief and loss. But also please tell me how your son is growing like a weed, your daughter just graduated from college, and brag about your new grandbaby. I am thrilled to be a great uncle! And we will share with you how our wonderful daughter continues to grow and flourish and how Mack’s memory continues to be honored by so many.

Mack's Teepee

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