Our "happy family picture" before our son died
Our “happy family picture” before our son died

Dear Friends who send Happy Family Christmas Cards,

Yesterday I read this post from Kay Warren, who shared with raw emotion how much it hurt last Christmas to receive “happy family pictures” in the mail. Kay and Rick Warren lost their son to suicide and in her attempt to make it through that first painful Christmas, she protected herself from places and memories that would twist the knife of grief in her heart. But there was one thing she could not control: Everyday, Christmas cards came uninvited into her mailbox, pictures of happy families, posed perfectly on a beautifully designed pieces of cardstock. She writes,

I hadn’t thought about the cards – hadn’t pegged them as emotional triggers ahead of time, and so when I opened the first batch, a wave of shock washed over me. Photo cards of beautiful, happy, INTACT families cascaded onto my kitchen table, most with a printed greeting wishing me a “Joyous Christmas.” Some had a scribbled handwritten signature and the words “Hope you have a great Christmas.” Some sent their standard family newsletter, full of all the accomplishments, fabulous vacations, delightful family moments that had filled the past year for them. What I quickly realized in astonishment and then anger was that none mentioned our grief….no one seemed aware that our precious Matthew had died violently six months earlier leaving us definitely NOT having a joyous or great Christmas.”

To endure the onslaught of happy family pictures, she finally stopped getting the mail altogether, leaving her husband to stack the unopened cards in their Christmas card sleigh. Finally in her pain, she tore through them in tears, sorting the cards into those who acknowledged her grief and those who didn’t. She found that most people avoided mentioning it entirely.

Grief and Christmas

The post stirred so many emotions in me, probably because the first Christmas after I lost my son in 2012, I also received many “happy family” Christmas pictures in the mail. Like Kay, I found it made my grief worse, reminding me that my family picture would never be complete.  My son would always be missing.

I was too afraid to share my feelings about the cards with my friends and family. Instead I silently endured the stacks of happy family pictures that arrived at my door on a daily basis, reminding me of what I had lost. I soon learned that avoiding those pictures was the best way to handle my grief. Instead, I focused on the treasured handwritten notes of comfort I received. One family went so far as to give my daughter some special Christmas gifts that year. In the midst of receiving the difficult family pictures, I found myself focusing on the ways that others were reaching out to comfort us.

Please don’t misunderstand: I love the families who sent me pictures. I was happy for them. In no way was I offended by receiving their photos. But I would be dishonest if I didn’t tell you the truth: I avoided those cards. Not because the families aren’t precious to me, but because at some point, you have to avoid the things that make your grief worse. The family pictures were a source of grief, but I knew my friends and family had the best intentions in sending them.

How to help grieving families at Christmas

Instead of sending a family picture card, Kay Warren suggests giving grieving people a plain Christmas card—no family pictures or family updates—and instead, writing a note of comfort to those who are sad or grieving during the holidays.

Buying a few extra cards is an inconvenience and it takes more time to write a sentence addressing someone’s pain, than sending a pre-signed Tiny Prints card. If this is too much for you, there is always the option of not sending a card. If you know your friends well, you probably have a sense of what to do.

Kay Warren was brave enough to share her story because she wants to help grieving people. Her response could be helpful for all the people dealing with fresh loss this year, including those who are:

  • newly divorced
  • experiencing a family separation
  • grieving a spouse or child
  • dealing with a miscarriage or infertility
  • struggling with singleness or a breakup

They may be more encouraged by a generic card and a short note expressing some measure of comfort. You might think by mentioning their loss it adds to their pain, but the opposite is actually true.

Addressing their grief is salve to their wounds.

Addressing their grief helps you enter into their pain.

I have yet to meet a grieving person who does not want their loss mentioned.

For those of you wondering whether to send our family a picture, please feel free. I love all my dear friends and their families. For our family, there are more good days than bad, for which I am thankful, and I am glad so many of you want to stay in touch.  Even though I will always be on this grief journey, I also am aware that for everyone else, life goes on. I want to celebrate life with you, the joy and the pain.

Please understand, I wrote this letter not to make people feel bad, but with a desire to help others understand a simple truth–that going out of your way to ease someone’s pain might be as simple as sending a plain card instead of your picture.

This might be inconvenient, but sometimes loving our neighbor is inconvenient.

My hope, dear friends, is that we can become a more comforting and merciful community to the hurting and that we can lift one another up in ways that encourage, bring hope, and put salve on each other’s wounds. I believe this is part of loving our neighbors.

Your friend,


This post is part of the Five Minute Friday series, where any blogger from anywhere can join in and write about today’s theme.


9 Comments on Why Kay Warren is right about grief and Christmas

  1. This is a beautiful letter, and while I don’t agree with all of it (as we do all deal with grief differently), I respect and admire the honesty of it.

    The thing that I found most encouraging in your letter is that you recognize that these photos are sent out of love and kindness. I’ve seen plenty of posts this holiday season about people complaining that they’re receiving cards, whether they’ve suffered grief or not. Comforting another who is suffering loss can be a difficult situation because we all handle it so differently. I’m one who would prefer to get the photo cards, to remind me of those who are still here, to see their smiling faces, and to pull me out of the pain. The plain cards, or the ones that are overly religious are the ones that would cause me more grief and pain, since they are less personal.

    Ultimately, the important thing is to reach out to someone who is grieving, and simply asking them what they need, what they’re desperately needing but are afraid to ask for, and then be there to support them in the method needed.

    Blessings to you,

    • Melissa, Thanks for the kindness you showed in your response. You are right that everyone handles it differently and that some people still want the family picture. In fact my husband agrees; he likes the pictures. I think the key is knowing what your grieving friends need and want during the holidays. Some friends would benefit from a plain card and others, like you said, like the pictures. I think the key is not just thoughtlessly sending it out, but actually asking, how can I comfort this person? Love is always the best response.

  2. I lost a son in 2009. Christmas can still be hard. I wish more people understand that grief is an ongoing emotion that morphs and changes but never really goes away. Thanks for encouraging people to acknowledge that and address it.

    • Colleen, I’m so sorry for your loss. The grief process is a journey and I thank you for sharing your thoughts because you are right on–grief does morph and change. I’m hoping not to discourage people from connecting with their grieving friends but to respond with love and empathy at Christmas.

  3. Sara,

    What a beautiful letter. As I read, I began mentally thumbing through our Christmas list to see if there’s anyone I need to be sensitive to before we send out our cards. I so appreciate your perspective about grief and the holidays. Thank you.

    PS–I’m visiting from FMF.

    • Thanks, Jeanne, for visiting and for thoughtfully considering your own response with your Christmas list. That shows so much empathy on your part. Before losing my son, I’m sure I sent family pictures to many grieving people without even considering how they might see the card. It’s hard to know what to do, but mentally thumbing through the list is a good first step.

  4. This is so true. I would gladly like a card saying missing Mike with you.
    The pain for me is still there. Hustle and bustle of families buying gifts for one another. I think oh what would I get Mike this year? It is hard walking thru the men’s section of the store.
    Thank you for being honest and sharing Kay’s words.

    • Karen, I’m so sorry. It is SO hard to get through the holidays. We do miss Mike with you. I wish he were here to celebrate all the birthdays and Christmas with you. Looking forward to the day when we can all be reunited in heaven.

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