The Fear of Holiday Grief
Do you know the first time “Do not fear” was used in the Bible, the first time a messenger from God needed to console and give up to a struggling follower? Did God say “fear not” to Adam and Eve? Nope. Did God calm the fears of Noah? Although alone with his family, surviving the destruction of the world and the entire human race, incredibly, no. The Bible says that Noah walked with God. Maybe that had something to do with it? If Noah walked with God then Noah was probably well acquainted with fear and grief, because just like other key figures in Scripture, walking with God is not easy. Walking with God has ups and downs, births and deaths, joys and sadness. And that is why this Mourning Light service is so important, especially this year. We need one another and we need God. We need God as we walk through our grief. We need God to walk with us, be present with us, be beside us as we cry and remember. And God is. God is with us every step of the way.
So, when was the first time “Do not fear” was used in the Bible? Well, it was said to Abram, the man who had followed God obediently and dutifully all of his life. The man who was now wandering in the unknown, in search of a home. A man in search of a future. A man in search of a child. A man who wasn’t sure that God was walking close beside him or with him anymore. God needed to show up and walk with Abram again. Abram was longing to hear that God had a way forward for him.
And that’s what we know for sure tonight, that God has promised us a future, maybe one we don’t really know or want, but one where we are protected and guided by the divine. Just like Abram in our scripture lesson tonight was protected by God like a shield. And it is in that safe place of protection and care that we find ourselves, a place in which we are walking with God and walking with one another through our grief and pain.
And so, like Abram and the many followers of God who needed a messenger to whisper words of peace in their ears, how do we need to stand up to the fear of holiday grief? I think we have three very biblical things to do. First, we can cry. It’s ok to cry – in fact, sometimes we just need a good ugly cry to set things right again. The prophets of God wept. The people of God wept. The followers of Jesus wept. Jesus wept. The physical release of shedding tears is a way cleanse the mind and open our hearts to walking with God on this journey of grief.
The second way to stand up to the fear of holiday grief is to share our burden. My friend and colleague in Dallas, Imam Omar Suleiman, recently shared a story about being at a cemetery for a funeral. He said, “Yesterday in the cemetery, I saw a young man bury his father. Then after the burial, he walked a few rows over to another grave and spent some time there as well. It was his grandfather (the father of his father). I couldn’t help but think about how identical the scene was. The man we had just buried only recently buried his father, and stood over his grave the same way his son was standing over his now. And it was just a few rows away. Then the brother of the man who passed away pointed to the grave of his 3-year-old daughter. The group that was there then started to point in different directions to parents, siblings, spouses, children, and people we all just missed who used to be active in the community. We walked around and supplicated for those who were identified, and of course the entire community of the deceased we were surrounded by. Then I thought about the other side. The realm of righteous souls we hope to accompany rejoicing with one another.”
This night, when grief and loss are crowding our lives, we are encouraged to not sweep our feelings under the rug but share our hurt and pain with one another, to accompany one another. We are not alone on this journey as we have all experienced the reality of death and loss. But also, on the other side of the grief we are feeling is hope, hope that we will be wrapped up in the care of God and joining and rejoicing with our loved ones and with one another in a reality with no fear, no sadness, and no pain. And as the hymn says, “what a day of rejoicing that will be.”
The third reason to not fear grief this holiday season is because we believe in a God who is with us, walking with us, and experiencing all of what we are experiencing. That is why the Christmas story is so important right now. God came in the form of a vulnerable, emotion-filled, exposed human being. We believe in a Divine being who found that the only way to truly save the world was by experiencing the world in human flesh. Those things that we fear this night are known by God, experienced by God, and overcome by God. God is with us here tonight and God is with you, walking with you, every step of the way.
It may be hard to look to the future, the uncertainty of it all, and, like Abram, not see the promise of God anywhere. And I know life will have many more heartaches and terrifying moments when we forget that we are stronger than the fear. Surely Abram, in his old age, knew that death was coming and that God’s promise of children would soon be too far out of reach. But that fear and grief was only piece of Abram’s story and it is only a piece of your story, for after the labor pains comes new life and new joy, with God walking right beside us.
Maya Angelou wrote, “I realized when I was about 20 that I would die . . . It so terrified me that I double-locked the doors; I made certain that the windows were double-locked – trying to keep death out – and finally I admitted that there was nothing I could do about it. Once I really came to that conclusion, I started enjoying life, and I enjoy it very much.”
And that is what will help us through our fear of the holiday grief this year. We get through our grief by knowing that we can’t get away from it and that we walk with God and with each other. Grief is with us as we experience these holidays without our loved ones. Part of our journey this holiday season is to not fear grief but to befriend it. Feeling sad and out of sorts is ok in this uncertain time. It’s ok to feel the hurt and loneliness of grief. But what God’s message of “do not be afraid” means for us, as we cry together, remember together, and share our names and stories, is that God is walking with us, and will always walk with us, in our fear. God is walking with us, and will always walk with us, in our loneliness. God is walking with us, and will always walk with us, in our grief. And because of that, we can hear the messenger saying and truly believe the words, “Be Not Afraid.”