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A Change in Direction for Christmas

Article authored and published courtesy of Dr. Bill Webster

Journeys don’t always turn out the way you expect.

Some years ago, on December 23rd, my wife and I set out to visit my son and his wife and our grandchildren for Christmas. It was a bright sunny day, the flight went well and everything was going along just great.

We arrived at the Vancouver airport where we were to change planes for a 45-minute hop to get to our final destination. I noticed it first on a monitor… “Cranbrook … cancelled”. I didn’t say anything to Johanna, because it was bound to be a mistake, right? We walked through the airport, but now every monitor we passed had a growing number of “cancelled” flights. We got to the desk where we were supposed to make our connection and found that every flight but one had been grounded.

It didn’t make sense. We knew there was a storm forecast for the NEXT day, but the sun was still shining and everything looked… normal!! What were we going to do now? This was not part of the plan.

I got in line at the enquiries desk where the one frustrated agent came over to say that she would be with us “in a minute” after she got the last flight on its way. I stood for over an hour while the line behind me grew quickly in numbers and even more swiftly in frustration and anger.

And when the people started to GET OFF the last flight and that too was cancelled, we all began to realize that we were in real trouble. Finally an announcement was made telling us that all flights were cancelled, for that day and the next and that “if we were lucky” there would be flights in a few days, but that it would be first come, first served. Suddenly, worryingly, we began to wonder if we would even make it home for Christmas.

I was glad that I had stood for that hour because I was second in line with literally hundreds behind me. The one guy ahead of me started in on the agent, venting his anger and frustration. “This was a disgrace. He would never fly this airline again. He would complain to the management, he would see to it she lost her job, etc etc.”  The poor lady, who had not done all this deliberately I am sure, took it all in stride and apologized but there was nothing she could do.

As the first guy stormed off, I thought, “Well, that strategy didn’t work too well. Maybe I’ll take a different approach.” I looked for her name tag. “Margaret,” I said, “I can see you are going to have a rough evening. I’m so sorry that the airline has put you in this difficult situation. And you don’t deserve the abuse you just took. Here’s the thing. I am hoping to get to Cranbrook to see my grandchildren. If you were in my position, Margaret, what would you do?”

Margaret didn’t look up, but leaned forward and whispered, “If I were you, I would get myself over to gate 121 in the other side of the airport. There is one flight going out in 30 minutes to Calgary and if you are lucky you might just be able to talk your way onto it.  Get out of Vancouver, anywhere you can .. but don’t say I told you.”

I thanked her, and Johanna and I rushed over to gate 121 where were able to get the last 2 seats on the flight. But what about our luggage? “Forget that,” they said, “we’ll get it to you eventually” … which turned out to be 4 days later.

So now we are on our way back to Calgary which we had flown over 5 hours before. We felt a bit like Mary and Joseph that first Christmas … not knowing where we would stay or if there would be any accommodation. Fortunately, we were able to find room at the inn … the Airport Holiday Inn!

The next day, because all the flights that should have been bringing the packed passenger list to Calgary airport to make connections were stuck in other affected airports, we were able to get on the plane for Cranbrook and arrived, with great rejoicing, in time for Christmas.

Turns out, the airline had unbelievably run out of de-icing fluid, and no planes were allowed to take off, except, for whatever reason, that one plane to Calgary. It was our Christmas miracle. We got there in the end, even though the journey didn’t work out as we expected, and we had to go by a very different and circuitous route.

I realize that for many of you, this last year has brought an unexpected twist, a change in direction in your life journey. You probably didn’t expect you would be having a grieving Christmas after the loss of a loved one, and frankly you wish you didn’t have to be. You may feel stuck in this situation, wondering if there is a way forward.

I am always very conscious that when someone you care about dies, your world changes. The world looks and feels different. Many times, well-intentioned people see that we are emotional. They worry because we are so confused, forgetful, not able to concentrate, anxious, irritable, crying, and struggling with guilt and anger and depression. In an attempt to be helpful, they often focus on emotions, behaviours and reactions they observe, and suggest strategies to help us “get over it.”

I have come to realize that the key to understanding bereavement is in realizing that the bereaved person’s world had been changed by the loss. Your world looks and feels different, and with it this Christmas. For everyone else, it is the season to be jolly, the most wonderful time of the year. But for you, it just isn’t the same.

Why is Christmas so difficult for grieving people? There may be several reasons. This season, for many traditions and cultures, is a time of celebration. It can be difficult as we remember better days and compare them to THIS Christmas. Holidays are usually a time to look to the future, but now the future appears difficult… unimaginable, and uncertainty always creates fear. So we are apprehensive about what we have to confront. We may even feel guilty about enjoying ourselves at Christmas, thinking this might be regarded as disrespectful to the person who has died. I believe we need to balance grieving what we have lost with appreciating what (and who) we still have.

I have Three Gifts for you today … Gifts for a Grieving Christmas. The first is given for YOU, the second has to do with your loved one, and the third concerns your family and friends.

My First Gift is for YOU. Maybe you are facing this Christmas season with dread. Here are a few suggestions: 

  • Recognize that this Christmas is different.   
  • Plan Ahead. Decide what YOU want to do. Act rather than react.   
  • Avoid “should’s” and “ought’s”.   
  • Re-examine your priorities.   
  • Make the changes you think are best.   
  • Be honest about your feelings.
  • Take Responsibility for your own Happiness.  
  • Look after Yourself. Don’t abandon healthy habits  
  • Be compassionate with yourself if things are not perfect this year.
  • Believe in yourself, that your determination will help get you through.

The Next Gift focuses on your loved one. They may be gone, but I am sure they will be very much on your mind:

  • Acknowledge your loved one’s presence.
  • Create a Special Tribute to your loved one. (Involve children in this one if you can.) 
  • Don’t be afraid to relive your memories
  • Celebrate the person’s life as well as acknowledging their death
  • Don’t allow looking back at the past to spoil what you have in the present
  • Believe that there are reasons to go on, even though you may not see what they are right now.

My Final Gift has to do with others around you like family and friends. Remember, they may be grieving too:  

  • Balance Solitude and Sociability   
  • Ask for and Accept Help.  
  • Set Differences Aside   
  • Learn to Say “No” to things that seem too much for you 
  • Take a Break from stressful situations   
  • Try to find Something Positive and Meaningful in your Life.
  • Take Care of Children. Children know when something is “wrong” and giving them a good Christmas creates a sense of safety and security. 
  • Try to make OTHERS happy. You’ll be surprised how well this works for YOU!    
  • But regardless, just remember … there will be OTHER Christmas’s

There’s a little verse in the Christmas story of the Wise Men that often goes unnoticed. After finding the baby in Bethlehem, they returned home “by a different route”. They had to find a different road forward than the way they had come. When you have experienced bereavement, you suddenly find that life has taken on a whole new direction. Sometimes in life we have to find new ways and a different route to get to where we need to be.

Perhaps you face this Christmas with some apprehension, and, this year, you feel like the light has gone out of your life. Nothing seems quite right, and you wonder if you have the strength to go on.

But folks, no matter how dark your situation, remember one thing. There is not enough darkness in the whole universe to hide the light of even one candle. Even one glimmer of light can overcome the darkness. It may not banish it completely, but it is never all dark as long as there remains one flicker of hope.

So come on, and light a candle with me. With God’s help, and with the help of family and friends, you will be surprised how that flickering flame of hope will continue to burn. You will make it through, even though it may not be easy. Your supply of strength and patience may be low, but hang in, because no matter what has shattered your hopes or your dreams or even broken your heart, you are not beyond repair. 

So, whatever the situation you are in, find ways to face the future with hope, which in its simplest definition is “the belief that good is still to come”.

“May you have a meaningful Christmas and a better New Year.”

(Dr Bill Webster has a website at, where you will find a 30 minute video and some helpful information on Coping with Christmas, including “Helping Children” through the season.)