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James A. Mann: From loss to joy — The Ghost of Christmas Present

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James A. Mann, Commentary

"'I am the Ghost of Christmas Present," said the Spirit. "Look upon me!"' These were the words that greeted Ebenezer Scrooge as the clock tower struck one o'clock, Christmas morning. 

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Jim Mann</span></p>Courtesy photo

Jim Mann

Courtesy photo

As the ghost spirited Scrooge around old London, he was magically taken through the snowy city streets, into warm houses and into holly- and ivy-decorated shops. Ebenezer was given a glimpse of the joy of Christmas shared by all.

Well, almost all, that is. Scrooge found no joy in Christmas. And some of us who are experiencing loss and grief in life find it hard to discover the joy in Christmas as well.

In my last column, I described the pain often associated with the Ghost of Christmas Past. The holidays remind us of how things were; and how they are different today. If we can deal with the past, we then turn to the present. Like Scrooge, we're not real sure we want to look upon the Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge made a choice to be a scrooge. Those of us grieving have had our joy taken from us.

So how do we face a season of festivities in the midst of sorrow, when everything reminds us that our world has been turned upside down?

The first step, I think, is what I call "embracing" grief. Admit your loss. Admit the significance of your loss. Admit that you are grieving. Don't play tough. Don't pretend everything's fine. Let yourself cry. Let yourself grieve. It's not until you can look in the mirror honestly that you can begin the healing process.

In dealing with my own grief, years ago, I discovered that I am a lot like a kettle on the stove. As the pressure from the steam builds, it will be released one way or another. I can either release that pressure in a healthy way, or I'm "gonna blow!" Those boiling emotions might erupt negatively on the ones I love, I might pick up or resume unhealthy habits, it might affect my health, or it might lead to depression. Or worse. Suicide is highest around the holidays. The teapot whistles for a reason.

The greatest release I felt came through prayer, expressing my honest and heartfelt grief and disappointment to God.

The second step is what I call "owning" your grief. This is your loss you must deal with, so you have to find a way to deal with it. There are support groups that can help. You may have friends with similar stories that can help. There are clergy throughout town that can help. As you work through your grief, don't let others set the timetable for you. Some people heal faster than others; some wounds are deeper than others. Remember: own your grief, but don't keep it. It doesn't have to define the rest of your life.

In my own loss, I had friends and family giving me all kinds of suggestions and "helpful" advice. I didn't find much of it useful. Rather than taking offense at their unhelpful advice, I decided I would just appreciate the fact that they cared. I decided to work through my grief in my own way.

Finally, you've got to eventually come to terms with the fact that life goes on. Life may never be "normal" again, so you've got to discover your "new normal." The Ghost of Christmas Present is here bidding us to look upon him whether we like it or not. So look.

Go to the Christmas parties if you can. Throw yourself into the winter coat drive at your church. Get an angel off the tree and shop for them. Don't miss that Christmas Eve candlelight service you've always loved. Put on your hat and scarf and go caroling. Don't let your loss or memories of Christmas past steal the joy of Christmas present.

As the spirit took old Ebenezer Scrooge through London, he saw Christmas celebrated among all walks of life. Like Scrooge, I discovered, in my journey, that there were many others less fortunate than me, others who had lost more than me. In a wonderful, strange way, helping them helped me. It seems that God comforts us when we reach out to comfort others.

Finally, on a more practical side, grief is emotionally and physically taxing. Try to get some exercise, eat well, drink plenty of fluids and rest (not an easy task around the holidays anyway). You may find that it seems cement blocks are strapped to your feet. That's "normal." So is the difficulty you'll discover in making decisions. But if you'll put in the work necessary, it will pass in time.

The past and the present are incredibly challenging when grieving. But there's more. In my next column we'll talk about the most frightening ghost yet — the Ghost of Christmas Future. God's blessings on your journey.

James A. Mann, Ph.D. is the Lead Pastor of New Life Church in Denton (www.newlifedenton.org) and is the author, with his wife Christine, of A New Normal: A Journey from Loss to Joy available at info@newlifedenton.org.