It seems appropriate to take a deeper dive into feelings about family gatherings again in this blog post.  I talk with folks every day whose family relationships are stressed, sometimes in crisis—and for them, thinking about their family holiday gatherings brings on anxiety rather than joy.

Lest I be thought of as a wet blanket on this season, just let me say that I know that not all families, …. possibly not even very many families, find themselves in a difficult or painful emotional space as the Christmas and New Year approach. In fact, it warms my heart that this is so.

Many parents, and children young and old, are eagerly preparing and anticipating wonderful  celebrations full of joy and pleasure in being together.  For these families, as the scripture reminds us, I truly “rejoice with those who rejoice” this season.  (Romans 15:12a)

But not everybody can tap into that joy as readily right now..  Some families see happy blogs about holiday recipes and traditions and their heartaches seem amplified.  For them, the stark contrast between the “most wonderful time of the year” and their circumstances is hard to bear.  It is with these parents on my mind, these families in pain, that I write today.

Everything in me wishes I could “fix it” for them, even as I know that I cannot.  But at least I want them to know that the previously quoted “rejoice” passage in Romans has a part “b” to it.  “…mourn with those who mourn.”  (Romans 15:12b)  I want families in pain to know that they are not alone…. that God and a few others of us hear them and mourn with them as they face difficult circumstances and relationships in their families.

I won’t dwell long on the specific circumstances that might bring grief or conflict to the family table.  Naming a few will suffice:

  • Someone who ought to be there… isn’t.
  • Formerly lively friendly conversation degenerates into hostility over “wrong” beliefs.
  • An only daughter has announced she is no longer a daughter, but a son.
  • All on pins and needles about whether a son, or a dad, will arrive sober; as the time stretches on, fear that he won’t.
  • ….. We could list so many, couldn’t we?

It often isn’t that the Joy is gone from the season for these families.  it is more that their experience of “good tidings and great joy” and reverence for the “Reason for the season,”  have to compete with feelings of grief that threaten to overwhelm them.  The men and women and children who experience conflicting feelings during the  holiday gatherings often vacillate between their hopes and their fears—hope for a congenial family dinner that knits their hearts together, and fear that threats to their family ties will win out this time and destroy the bonds that unite them.

It’s odd when you are experiencing two mutually exclusive feelings, especially when they are so intense.  The pressure is strong to choose one –

…..ignore the pain, stow it away; paste a smile on your face and insist on the joy of Christmases past; squash any word that hints at controversy; ignore any chinks in the emotional armor…..


…..hang onto the grief; drag it with you into every minute of every hour of every day, snuffing out every spark of joy; throw cold water on an expressed fun memory, a kid’s antics, Uncle Clarence’s mildly insensitive jokes and Aunt Lilly’s affectionate disapproval of his jokes.

Or maybe there’s another way?

A personal experience

I was once visiting a young woman in her hospital room as she was dying of cancer.  The mood in her room was somber; family and friends present were filled with grief, disappointment, and fear.

And then 2 floors up, the same day, same hospital, I also visited a young woman and her first baby.  Even the nurses on the floor were alive with joy, a spirit of celebration, wonder, and hope filled the room.

These two lived realities – how could I fully enter either of them?  Of course, I couldn’t, but Jesus can, and he calls us to join him:  “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

A co-workers experience last year

In June of 2020, the reality in our country was so stark:

– peaceful protests for legitimate concerns

—  morphing in and out of riots, violence and destruction,

— seeing thousands marching in the streets while the country was under safer-at-home pandemic guidelines.

One morning a co-worker told us of watching the protests just outside his window, and the violence that came later one night.  He went to bed with a heavy heart.  He said he woke the next day to see—out the same window, in the aftermath of the chaos of last night, now in the light of day, there were so many people—volunteers—cleaning up the area.  My colleague told us of his feelings –  mutually conflicting, equally strong – mourning with those who mourn over the mayhem and destruction that went on, …. But ..…  a joy welling up at the sight of so many volunteers out in the streets cleaning up.  He said,

“God is still at work.”

And what is God up to?  I don’t know, not specifically in any case, least of all in the lives of families in pain, especially when that family is mine.  But I do know that whatever He is up to, His plans include a hope and a future:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11)

And so we wait on the Lord to renew our strength while His plans work out in our lives and the lives of those we love.  In the meantime, we pray, and remind people in pain that they are not alone, and share with them what helps us.

I will close with a couple of quotes that caught my attention in Sunday School a few weeks ago. ( Yes, I pay attention in Sunday School; at least I did that day!)

“….When the fact is faced that life is profoundly disappointing, the only way to make it is to learn to love.” 

“…Only when we commit our yearnings for perfect joy to a Father we have learned to deeply trust are we free to live for others despite the reality of a perpetual ache.” (Larry Crabb, Inside Out, 2013)


Mary Heathman

Mary Heathman

Founding Director

Mary is one of the founders of Where Grace Abounds and served as Executive Director from its inception on July, 1986 through March 31st, 2007.  She speaks and teaches at churches and conferences across the country. She has also served on several boards of non-profit organizations, is a conference speaker on a variety of topics that include: Intimacy with God, Healthy Sexuality, and leadership development.  Currently serving in leadership in her denomination, Mary’s favorite ministry roles are discipleship counseling, group facilitation, and leadership development.

Mary often characterizes herself as “a seeker of Truth” and has a long-standing fascination with human behavior and motivation.  Her education consists of lay and discipleship counseling, independent study about the integration of psychology and theology, counseling and human sexuality. She also holds a BS in Human Services and an MA in Psychology from Regis University.

Mary attends a Friends (Quaker) Church.

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