Holding the Tension of Grief and Gratitude During the Holidays

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Today’s guest post is from Dr. Renee Davis, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and owner of Spark Change Wellness Center. She is licensed to provide care in the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia. She has the pleasure of serving school-aged children, adolescents, young adults and their families. She also teaches graduate level courses for counseling students at McDaniel College. Raised on the east coast, Renee is proud to call Maryland her home. She enjoys exploring new cuisines, staying active in the gym, and building community through her church.

I remember growing up thinking that the unofficial start date to begin Christmas decorations, songs, and celebrations was the day after Thanksgiving.  According to some, that date is now November 1.  Retailers would have us to believe that it is even earlier. I have thought about the reason why we are often in a rush to enter into the holiday season. Perhaps it’s the excitement of having a few days off to spend with loved ones. Maybe it’s the opportunity to eat to one’s delight without the associated guilt.  It could even be the anticipation of the joyous and generous mood people are often in, where smiles are as bright as the ornamental light displays. There is a sense of gratitude that accompanies this time of year that we cannot deny.  For Christians, it holds the deeper meaning of celebrating the birth of Christ, who brought eternal hope into the world as one who would be Savior and King.

As much as we celebrate during these weeks of the Advent season, it can also be hard to ignore the tension that some walk around with.  The conflicting emotions that the holidays can trigger. Those who want to experience the joy they see in others, while also battling feelings of sadness and grief. It’s interesting in how the merriment that exudes externally can ultimately magnify the pain within. For those who carry the grief of a loved one who has passed, it can be a challenge to discover the hope that is available.

I remember the first holiday season after my brother passed. I felt so torn. Christmas was always my favorite time of year, and yet I felt I was held hostage in the heaviness of his absence. It wasn’t just feelings of grief, but there were feelings of loneliness in now being the only child. There were feelings of anger because his death seemed so premature. There were feelings of sadness in seeing the reflection of grief in my own parents’ eyes.  Honestly, there were also feelings of confusion. Was it okay to laugh? Was I supposed to play Christmas music? Were we supposed to celebrate as normal? I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the tension of what I now recognize as the competing feelings of grief and gratitude.

Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s okay to carry both, and fully embrace all of the emotions that this season brings.

It’s okay to acknowledge a broken heart. 

In fact, God’s word promises in Psalms 34:18 (NLT), “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirts are crushed.” Part of me feeling God’s closeness came from validating the fact that my heart was broken.

It’s also okay to acknowledge the moments of joy. 

Nehemiah 8:10 (NLT) reminds us, “…Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” When I reflect on this verse, I am reminded that I don’t have to manufacture my own joy. I can literally be strengthened in allowing my heart to receive the joy that comes from God.

As we embark on another holiday season, my hope is that you can find the courage to hold the tension of both grief and gratitude, of sadness and joy. One feeling does not have to cancel out the other. For those who may have people in their lives carrying this tension, I recognize that there can be a sense of hesitation as you try to find the best way to offer support. Can I relieve you of the expectation of having the perfect words to say? I promise, you won’t get it right every time. Having experienced various forms of grief, myself, I still get it wrong in my efforts to comfort others. Here’s what I have learned:

  • My ability to simply listen can make such a difference. In fact, it is those moments in which I rush to find a solution that I can end up doing more damage than good.
  • I don’t have to pretend as though everything is normal. A lack of acknowledgement of someone else’s grief can be just as painful as saying the “wrong thing.”
  • Follow God’s pace and leading as you reach out to that friend, client, or congregant. If someone suddenly comes to mind, consider that a spiritual nudge to reach out.
  • Know that where words fall short, God can use your presence to speak in ways that you could not articulate. Don’t underestimate the healing power that your acts of service can bring to others.

My hope is that during this holiday season, wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of grief and joy, that you recognize you are not alone. We serve a God who literally has a count of every hair on our head. His attention to the details of your life does not fall short. He sees all that you carry even when it feels that others do not. Most importantly, God’s sufficient grace is a gift that will show up every day. Perhaps it’s time to reach out and receive it.





  • Iris Waters
    December 11, 2023

    This writing is absolutely beautiful, helpful, and timely.

    I know Dr. Davis personally. She is so genuine and a God-fearing woman.

    • RobinBarnes
      December 11, 2023

      I also appreciate her helpful words in this post. Thank you for your kind words about her. I too find her genuine and godly.

    • Renee Davis
      December 12, 2023

      Thank you so much 🙂