How to Hold and Heal our Grief During the Holidays

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There are many things that we can do to learn how to hold and heal our grief. Some we do naturally without even realizing it. And some we discover or have to choose.

Our bodies, minds, and spirits naturally want to move towards healing and wholeness. However, the loss of something or someone we love can make us question everything we once knew and feel disconnected from everything that once brought us joy and hope.

Being with family when you’re grieving a loss, whether that loss be a friend, career, lover, or lifestyle, can be such an isolating experience. Moments of laughter and smiles, conversation and catching up, all haunted by this lingering feeling that something is missing...

Someone, is missing.

Summary of How to Hold and Heal our Grief

If we didn’t walk into the room already with a conscious awareness of our grief, of that missing piece in our lives, it finds ways to pop into our mind at the most unexpected and distracting of times. Mid conversation or maybe in that moment when you pause to take a drink. 

Something is off, out of place.

This sense, this awareness flashes for a split second and we’re right back there in the presence of our grief, reminded of our loss. 

This isn’t the same as it was. As it could have been.

From there, grief is less of a slippery slope and more of a trapped door back into our awareness that the thing, the person that we loved, what is no longer there or no longer possible. This emotional trap door opens to a cascade of neural firing in our brains as all the thoughts, all the narratives, all the emotions and confusion, guilt and remorse, longing and loss begin to fill our heads in that fraction of a second.

This sudden tsunami of thought and emotion can make more difficult and confusing to know what we need to hold and heal our grief that we are carrying

For many, not knowing how to hold and heal our grief feels like real pain, and for some it is! Physical symptoms of pain (think of the term heartache and that feeling of tightness in your chest or pit in your stomach), loss of energy, concentration, and even memory resulting from emotional experiences.

For others of us, the grief was too strong, too sudden, or we didn’t know what to do with it for too long that we shutdown or collapsed into a kind of numbness, functional maybe, but numb.

But oftentimes, especially when everything and everyone around us just wants or forces us to keep moving forward, to be strong, or worst, just be “ourself”, the natural impulse is to escape and be free from the pressure, shame, and disappointment of the present. At its most extreme, but sadly not uncommon, is taking one’s own life.

Making sense of it…

Most of us have things that we want to live for. But the loss of something or someone that cannot be replaced, a time we can’t go back to, or a future we’ll never have, can all easily suffocate hope, or at least distract and distort it and launch us into our own pit of despair where life and light are sucked out of us. 

How does it get to that point? Unfortunately, it isn’t hard and is more common than most realize. Many people are familiar with those impulses of turning or letting go of the wheel, taking one step forward, or to the left or right, or simply walking into the ocean or woods.

This can happen unexpectedly, especially at times when we can’t make sense of or find relief from our pain, or we can’t feel any sense of control over our thoughts and emotions, our life or our future. At times when our body, loved ones, or even life itself seems to have betrayed, disappointed, or let us down, objectively, it makes sense how we could end up wanting to exercise our most basic and powerful element of control. 

If there is no source or object of hope, if we have no idea how to hold or heal our grief in the present, and life feels like nothing but pain or even the opposite, meaninglessness and emptiness, life, often, just doesn’t seem worth living. Even if we do have a sense of control, losing hope and meaning can be like losing anchors on a boat in the middle of a terrible storm.

Meanwhile, back at the point of being engaged with friends or family or in that moment of quiet, a moment that was so rudely interrupted by a flash of grief across our field of awareness, try as we might to re engage the moment with the people around us, the narratives and imagery quickly bombard and barrage us. 

A memory comes to the front of our minds… followed by “Never again.” 

A thought about what this day, this month, this year, this holiday was supposed to be like… 

“And what about next year?” 

“What about your birthday?” 

“What about that trip, that experience, that dream, that goal, that promise…?” 

Then, so quickly, it snaps back to something beautiful to keep you there, drifting further into the abyss. This is the spiraling pit of grief and loss. If we’ve learned how, for better or worse, to ignore the thoughts and feelings or shut them down completely by checking out or escaping somehow, disassociating or distracting ourselves, we will. At least, that’s the impulse.

I want to offer some tips and wisdom for how to hold and heal our grief during the holidays, and any time we find ourselves with family and friends when grief, anxiety, depression, and even the impulse to escape from the pain in any of its forms are with you, or even if they are all you can feel. The goal is not simply to manage negative symptoms, but to practice intentional rhythms of self-care and self-love that can bring progressively greater healing and wholeness during the holidays, and to life in general.

1. Take breaks to make space for yourself

Showing up and being present the way we or others might want us to be can amplify our pain by making us constantly aware that it’s not just our circumstances that have changed, we are also changing. Pain, love, loss always changes us, either by making us harder and more rigid, or expanding who we are and what we thought was possible. Giving yourself permission and being intentional to step outside or into a bedroom or bathroom for a few minutes every now and then will help prevent the build-up and overwhelm of thoughts and emotions. Shed a few tears. Take a few breaths. Pause and be still for a moment so that you can again be present.

2. Prepare and practice grounding and centering

Here are a few examples of effective grounding and centering activities to help manage overwhelming emotions or ruminating thoughts while you try to hold and heal your grief.

3. Practice kindness and forgiveness

Grief and emotional pain always have the possibility of turning inwards. This can take the form of shame, self-criticism, the endless cycles of if-onlys and what-ifs, and other patterns that focus on the past or the future in ways that we have no control over. In those moments, as much as possible, bring attention in your mind and heart to what you’re proud of, what you’ve done or are doing well. If that seems hard or awkward, start simple by making a list each morning and evening of 10 things you’re grateful for. Using a form of prayer called the Examen is a great way to do this!

Or, when you’re in the moment by yourself or with family or friends and you notice a critical or despairing thought crosses your mind, use your affirmation, breath prayer or other grounding exercise from step 2. The loss or sadness has enough complexity and pain to work through on its own, don’t kick yourself when you’re down. Or let anyone else for that matter!

4. Make Space for Mindfulness

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing in the present moment, with grace and acceptance. Typically, when we become aware of a thought or feeling, there is an impulsive or instinctual reaction to it. We might immediately start fighting with it (which often ends up making it stronger), run away from it by distracting or numbing ourselves somehow, or just shut down in overwhelm or exhausted surrender and sink further into the pit and darkness.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is like sitting in restful awareness next to a river as the thoughts and emotions come up and drift by on the stream. You can watch, you can observe, but you can do it from the safety of the shore. Centering prayer, a Christian form of mindfulness meditation, is a great tool to learn how and practice doing this. Or, in lieu of learning a new form of prayer and meditation, being grounded and centered using any of the above practices is a helpful starting point for practicing mindfulness that can help when surrounded by family and friends, or even when alone in the deafening silence.

5. Honor the wound and the love it represents

The hurt, pain, and confusion That we feel has a source, even if we can’t name or do anything about it. Some part of us has been and is still wounded. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not know how, when, or even if things will ever change. They will, but saying or hearing that doesn’t fix anything. For now, be intentional about giving yourself grace by not feeling like you have to have it all together, all the time. If your love was deep, the wound will be too.

6. Appreciate the little things

As much as possible, like a couple on their wedding day just trying to capture small moments in their memories amidst the overwhelming amount of activity, take mental snapshots of small positive moments. A great joke that had the room filled with laughter. The playfulness of kids. A meaningful conversation. Even one great bite from a good meal or your favorite dessert makes for a good pause to practice gratitude. Notice the little things, no matter how small or trivial to anyone else, pause and notice whatever helps you be present or feel a sense of gratitude, love, awe, or wonder.

7. Do something new or different

Because so much of the grief, pain, and sadness emerges from our awareness that something or someone is missing, or things just aren’t the way we imagined they were going to be, doing something new or different that you enjoy can help keep the experience and time feeling fresh instead of stuck in patterns of comparison and longing. Whether this activity happens on your own or you invite other people to be a part of it, start a new tradition or do something out of the ordinary like a game, puzzle, or project that you think you might enjoy.

If possible, find something simple that can improve the life of someone else. The outcome isn’t even as important as simply exercising your ability to experience something new or life giving.

8. Find something beautiful to enjoy

Nature and beauty are powerful and often surprising sources of inspiration, perspective, and pleasure. They can remind us of the best things in us and in this world that we don’t need money or even words to enjoy. Take a walk some place new. Wake up for a sunrise or watch the sun set. Draw a picture. Paint or color something. Read or write poetry. Or just sit in the afternoon sun or under the night sky. Beauty and nature can help bring our awareness into the simplicity and wonder of the world around and within us. Most of all, it reminds and helps us to slow down and be still and quiet once in a while.

9. Journal

Making notes and writing down our experiences can help slow down the chorus of noise and activity while giving us a record that we can look back on. Journaling using prompts, questions, or just writing whatever comes to mind is an easy and painless way to express what’s going on internally in a manageable way. Even having a written dialogue with your thoughts and emotions, starting with writing the words, “How are you feeling right now?” is a great place to start. And remember, as much as possible, be kind to yourself! Journaling is a simple way to practice self-reflection and give words to complex or intimidating emotions and experiences.

Whatever path or tools you choose, my hope and prayer is that you will be able to find small ways to be present, to bring light to the darkness, and begin or continue moving through your grief, pain, or sadness in life giving ways so that you can enjoy your time with family and friends.

Introducing Lectio Divina, the Art of Listening to God through the Bible

This video is to introduce the Christian practice and discipline of Lectio Divina, or devotional reading of Scripture. This practice is about moving beyond knowledge and into the experiential nature of reading the Bible, of feeling and hearing God move and speak in the here and now.

So… what is lectio divina?

Lectio Divina is a method of reading the Bible that is focused on encountering God through the biblical text itself.

That is to say, what does it say to YOU personally? Or, what is God saying to you THROUGH the text as you read and listen to it?

We do this by not focusing on formal study where we would break down the passage or analyze it through a bunch of filters. Instead, we prayerfully listen and attend to the passage as it resonates with and speaks to you at this particular moment in time.

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God

Ephesians 3:17-19

Noticing Beauty Meditation

“What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.

When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.”

― John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace

Let’s be clear. There is no right or wrong way to notice Beauty. It’s all around us, all the time. However, the distraction and demands of life are more than enough to keep us so preoccupied so that we miss out on the benefits to our psyche and soul.

Basic Instructions:

1) Choose one of the images from the collection below or just tune in to what’s around you

2) Turn on the music if you’d like

3) Breathe, Observe

This activity is exercise for your soul.

It requires a degree of effort and rewards you in ways you’ll have to experience for yourself. Most often, the benefits resemble a deeper calm, a felt peace, and a greater clarity after you finish and carry on with your day.

Follow the guide below. Relax. Tune in. Enjoy!

Noticing Beauty Meditation & Guide

Inner Life & Desolate Lands

Written by Brendan Cooney

Gather what little you have, be grateful for it, and share it.

Discovering New Life is Possible while Journeying into what is often the Desolate Land of our Inner World

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.”
Mark 6:30-31

Mark 6:30-44 (ESV Version)

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.

34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii[a] worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”

38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.

This story from the Bible mirrors the experience of daily living and the invitation into the stillness and silence of our own hearts, and the chaos that follows that movement. Or, perhaps more accurately, is even waiting for us in the stillness, silence, and solitude.

The disciples return from their work they had been sent to do, proud of what the successes and what they have accomplished. Christ responds by immediately inviting them away from everything that they felt a sense of accomplishment for, a sense of meaning and identity. He invited them to go and find rest by entering into a desolate place, somewhere far from the distractions and pressures of life in order to rest. Away from all the things they found their personal sense of value, worth, and identification. Inviting them back into being themselves.

What they experience when they attempt to do this, is that the crowds, those whom they had been serving and working with, have outrun them and were already waiting in the stillness in silence of that desolate place on the other side of the lake. Now, it was neither still, silent, nor even desolate. They found that space to be full of the same pressure and noise they sought relief from.

“He invited them to go and find rest by entering into a desolate place, somewhere far from the distractions and pressures of life in order to rest. Away from all the things they found their personal sense of value, worth, and identification. Inviting them back into being themselves.

What they experience when they attempt to do this, is that the crowds, those whom they had been serving and working with, have outrun them and were already waiting in the stillness in silence of that desolate place on the other side of the lake. Now, it was neither still, silent, nor even desolate. They found that space to be full of the same pressure and noise they sought relief from.

Like and “good” or generous man or woman, the disciples continued to serve the crowds! Sacrificing what little remaining energy and will they could. Eventually, they grew weary and just asked for relief and release from the burden of caring for the crowds. They hit their limit! Now, drained and tired, perhaps even frustrated that they didn’t find the rest they went looking for, they just wanted the crowds gone. They wanted peace and quiet. They wanted rest.

Instead, Christ invites them to search for what they already possess, knowing that it will be enough. The meager scraps that they find are taken, blessed, broken, and shared, and there is more than enough to go around.

In the same way, the meditative practice of centering prayer, offers us a unique invitation and opportunity. It is the invitation to pause and be still and silent for 20 minutes, an invitation to come away from the pressures and work that can come to define our lives, our meaning, our purpose. In this space, we move into our inner worlds, what feels like a desolate place with nothing to offer except the chance to rest and be with our true selves.

Yet, what we often find when we try to observe even a moment of rest in stillness and silence, is that the people and the noise and the pressure and the work of our daily lives have already outrun us and are waiting for us there. We come to the shores of our inner world and find more chaos and demands then we might have experienced had we just kept our normal course and rhythms. For many people, silence and solitude, even just in our own minds, is an overwhelming experience.

But, as we move into this desolate land with intentionality, we are able to confront and encounter the presence of the chaotic crowds that wait for us there. With humility and intent, we can be with the sources of our struggles and our pain without attempting to fight or resist them, without attempting to dismiss them like they’re not also a part of us, we’re able to approach the source of Divine life within us. We don’t always know how to ask, but the request is always the same: give me rest, give me relief. 

In the process of centering prayer, and the experience within our inner worlds, the Divine love and light invites us to do something surprising and confounding: share what you have, for what you have and who you are is enough.

We don’t always know how to ask, but the request is always the same: give me rest, give me relief. 

It will never feel like what we have is enough, however, at least not for some time. Instead, we will look around at the desolate place of our inner world and maybe feel a sense of dread, shame, grief, or overwhelm at the impossibility of being able to care for all of the chaos, noise, pain, and demands on our heart. Yet, the movement of the meditative practice of centering prayer mirrors the invitation of Christ: release and return. Gather what little you have, be grateful for it, and share it.

This soul-level movement does not mean focusing on or attempting to resolve the complexities and challenges we find in our inner world, focusing our creativity and imagination on mere problem solving. Instead, it looks more like inviting the complexities, questions, fears, and hurts to join us for a peaceful moment.

In essence, we learn how to relate to our experiences, emotions, and thoughts differently by inviting them sit down with us next to, or within, the stream of consciousness and life that bubbles up from within us. The origins of this stream lie within the Presence and Source of all that we are and can be. 

In this movement, repeated over and over again during a time of intentional solitude and silence, through the act of returning to a single word or phrase that embodies our intent to just be with God in this desolate place, we learn to find rest. We learn to find rest that not only nourishes and feeds our soul and spirit during the time of centering prayer, but soon begins to overflow into the experience of moment by moment waking life. This desolate place becomes a garden, bearing fruit as a source of love and light not just for us, but for everyone we encounter, for creation, and for the cosmos.

To learn more about the meditative practice of centering prayer, click here to