Lisa Appelo is a single mom to 7 and young widow. She's a speaker and blogger who shares soul-deep encouragement for the adventure of faith at LisaAppelo.com. She recently authored Countdown to Christmas: Unwrap the Christmas Story with Your Family in 15 Days.You can connect with Lisa on Instagram and Facebook.
Six years ago, we faced a smile-less Christmas.
Only a few months before, the rhythmic ordinary that was our family life had been forever lost and I began shepherding eight stunned and broken hearts through the pain and questions and agony of missing.
Those next months? It took every ounce of hope just to put feet on the floor each morning and every bit of mental space and physical stamina not only to process my own grief, but to handle the paperwork, finances, household, parenting, taxiing, decisions and all that had once been shouldered by two.
And now, Christmas was coming.
As much as I longed for a good Christmas for my kids, I couldn’t imagine pulling together any kind of real celebration.
Our life seemed so far removed, so out of step from the shopping and parties, baking and merrymaking that engaged the rest of the world.
Even our own Christmas traditions felt too tender this year. I knew we’d come back to them, but this first year we just needed something else altogether.
And yet, I wanted to be present with my kids. I needed to be present with my kids. I had toddlers and school-aged kids and teens and we needed to do more than just survive Christmas.
We needed to do the slow, hard work to begin to heal; to begin rebuilding our family and our hearts, misshapen as they felt.
How do you prepare broken hearts for Christmas?
There’s no manual for that. No chapter in the mothering book tells you how to give your children the world when there’s feels so crushed.
I only knew to look up.
We needed to intentionally turn our eyes from the pain of our circumstances and look to the promise of Jesus.
We needed to wonder all over again at a God of miracles, who chose strength swathed in weakness.
Jesus, very God of very God, clothed in the vulnerability of a newborn; delivered by blood of the mother He came to deliver by blood; the One who holds together all matter Himself needing to be held.
We needed to marvel at a God who lavishly loves, even in a hard, hurting world.
Jesus, the One and Only, sent to a world that overlooked His birth, refused His gift, despised His ministry and betrayed his friendship and He still chose the cross.
We needed to lift our broken hearts to worship and adore One broken for us.
Jesus, the I AM, the First and the Last, the only One worthy, the King of Kings who dwells in unapproachable light, wrapped in wrinkled flesh and tucked into the hay of a cattle trough.
As we prepared our hearts that first Christmas, I opened the Word and began to write out a new tradition for our family. I pulled together prophecies from the Old Testament and scriptures from the New Testament to unfold the real story of Christmas.
We took the advent scriptures and matched each one to one piece of our Nativity. Then, we gathered as a family each night for 15 nights, and put up one piece of our Nativity as we unwrapped the story of Jesus’ birth.
Night after night, we lifted our eyes to Jesus, to wonder and marvel and worship.
Each night, we opened our hearts a bit wider to the hope and joy in the midst of our ache.
Turns out broken hearts prepare for Christmas the same way whole hearts do.
Preparing for Christmas means turning from the aches and worries and hard of this world to focus on the One who came to be with us in it.
The hard work of healing a broken heart won’t happen just because a few more Christmases pass by.
We won’t find joy again by stuffing pain and jumping into the decorating and decking and festivity.
Broken hearts can only start to heal when we look up at the One who came to make us whole. The Messiah who came into this messy world to carry our burdens and give us abundance.
It’s a promise already fulfilled and waiting for us. It’s only for us to look up.
Again, and again and again, as often and as much as we need until one day, we look around and see that we no longer wake to dread but we’re alive with hope.
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Unwrap the real Christmas story with your family this year with the 15-day Countdown to Christmas. This advent devotional brings the story of Jesus' birth to light in an easy, hands-on way as you connect scripture and a daily devotional reading with one piece of your own nativity you build over 15 days. This advent book can be used alongside your own standard nativity or as a stand-alone devotional reading.
I’m apt to think I’m the only one who didn’t know this lesson.
Maybe the grief myths I’ve been writing on this month aren’t news to you. Maybe you came into your season of grief much wiser than I did. Or you had fewer expectations – I’ve always been one to set these internal expectations for myself and then hold myself to them.
There was a time I thought loss was something you get over. Like getting over a broken leg, it would hurt hard for a while; it might even cause a slight limp, but there would be a time where it would heal and the once-wound only showed up in an internal scan.
That was before my heart broke. Of course, even in those first weeks, I had a vague notion that after the debilitating hard lifted – if we made it through that – wa-lah. We’d be healed.
When I read books on grief in those first weeks, I’d flip to the end first. I wanted to know how the widow was doing now. Was she remarried? Were her kids doing well? Was life good again?
Experientia magistra stultorum. Experience is the teacher of fools. How foolish I was. I understand now that loss is not something you get over.
You don’t get over loss. You learn to live with it.
We grieve because we love. Not lovED, but love. You don’t stop loving someone because they died.
Love that’s forged in all the struggles, the hopes, the vulnerable shared moments, the belly laughs through tears, the fights, the make-ups, the glorious everyday ordinary.
All of it so formative. All of it slowly, daily softening the hard edges, shaping who you even are.
That doesn’t disappear. You can’t just shut it like a read book and pull out a new one. You’ve been indelibly inscribed by the one you love and the one you grieve and there’s no erasing that. There’s no shelving it. Instead, you keep the book open and learn to live past the unexpected ellipsis . . .
Grief is not the cost of a love relationship; it’s part of the love relationship.
Though we don't get over the loss, grief does change. It lessens and lightens and becomes part of you.
In the warm memories that begin to fill the hollow aching.
In the hard, good lessons you never would have known.
In stewarding the lives left and entrusted to you.
In honoring through stories and traditions and celebrations the amazing gift they were.
In finishing well.
Grief means learning to live with the love and without the loved one.
Feeling the loss three or five or 15 years later doesn’t mean you’re stuck or you've done it wrong; it means you love. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that you need to get over it.
When something triggers tears, it’s because you love. When my 10-year-old crawls on my lap for a story about her dad, it’s because she loves. When you long for one more conversation, one more hug or smile – it’s because we love. If we have a thousand good days and plunge on a sad day, it’s because we love.
That love is forever part of us. What a gift.
We get to carry it forward, past the ellipses that could have tripped us altogether, and into the fullness of the rest that God has for us. We, the grievers, of all people, are foolish no more – loss is the mark that we’ve been loved and the motive to lavish our love in every page God gives us.
*This post originally appeared at LisaAppelo.com.
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Six years ago, I went to bed happily married and woke up a widow and single mom to seven. That day, as I stared at the pieces of my shattered life and my shredded heart, I also began to think about the road of grief that lay ahead.
I had no idea what it would entail. How long does it actually take to grieve a love story that had taken 30 years to write? How could I even detach from the man who’d been my best friend since 11th grade? The one who had wooed my heart, called me his, loved me more ferociously at 46 than 16? Whose commitment pushed through hormonal pregnancies and years with a bare bank account and days when all the shine had dulled in the mundane ordinary?
How does a person grieve that?
I found there are pithy statements and even some formulas given out to those grieving. Some of it was helpful and healthy information, but some it just didn’t hold up.
This month, I want to uproot some of the grief myths.
Maybe you’re not in a season of grief. You probably know someone who is. And at some point, we all go through grief. It may be a broken marriage, the death of a spouse or child or parent or friend. We can grieve someone who is still living and we can grieve something, like the death of a business or dream.
Today, let’s start with this entrenched grief myth.
Grief Myth #1: There are 5 stages of grief
The conventional notion that grief has 5 stages was popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 60's. She noted these 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
But this assumes that grief is linear; that we process each stage before moving onto the next; and that we all go through each of the 5 stages.
The truth is that grief is not linear. There’s no ordered procession from one phase to another.
Take denial: most people who grieve go through a long period of foggy disbelief. I had to continually remind myself that Dan wasn’t going to walk through the back door. I white-knuckled the life we’d had and couldn’t imagine what the next chapter even looked like.
But it surprised me that even a year or three after Dan’s death, I’d still reflexively pick up my phone to call him. I wanted to share a funny story about the kids or a good thing that had happened. Each time was another reminder that, oh yeah, he’s gone. That was the old life; this is the new. Moments used to be shared; now they echo in my own heart.
It's also myth that we wholly process one "stage" before moving into another.
Grief is a turbulent mix of emotions - sometimes even conflicting emotions.
We can feel the cavernous pain of missing while also being more filled with the presence of God than we’ve ever known.
We can feel cheated by all we’ll miss out on and yet grateful for everything we’ve had.
We can feel drowned by despair one day and buoyed by hope the next, only to later fight through another trough of despair.
We can feel the heavy cloak of sadness and, without ever taking it off, experience a moment of belly-laughing joy. (Remember this scene from Steel Magnolias?)
No, there are no neat and tidy stages we walk through in grief. It can feel messy even when we're grieving well. And that’s okay.
Finally, it's a myth to assume everyone experiences each stage. I never felt anger after Dan died. Choking loss? Yes. Despair? Oh, yes. Fear? So much. (I don’t see that mentioned in any of the stages.)
I expected to get angry at some point. But it never came.
And I’ve had two friends deeply betrayed in broken marriages who never went through an angry stage.
Are there 5 stages? No.
The truth is that everybody grieves in their own way, at their own pace, with multiple emotions in play at the same time.
Grief is intensely personal. The circumstances that cause loss and the environments after loss vary widely.
And yet, in our grief, God meets each of us so tenderly and so personally. He is all sufficient. He is a good Shepherd, who alone can lead us through the most barren deserts and darkest valleys to places of quiet water and green pasture.
"He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young." Isaiah 40:11
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P.S. This post first appeared at LisaAppelo.com. Click here to read other posts in the Grief Myths series.