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Loving those hurting through the holiday season

An interview with Whitney Mallory, LPC.

A neighbor in Mahomet and the brains behind local ministry, "Don't Hold Back".

Erin: Welcome, Whitney!  It has been such a pleasure getting to know you as new neighbors and friends.  In this hectic and beautiful season of Christmas, will you start by giving us some descriptive words and emotions you have that surround the holidays?

Whitney:  Thanks, Erin! You are such a gift to me and to so many others- yes, because of all the ways you love and serve in your profession, and through the Open Room, but first and foremost, simply because of who you are. You exude kindness, authenticity, generosity, and lots of fun.

For me, the holidays can feel frantic- a little like riding the Rainbow Road on Mario Kart- where there’s all of these fun, festive, exciting things flying by and I’m trying to drive my little self through as many as possible as quickly as possible. I don’t want our family to miss out on all the things that offer to bring us joy and lasting memories. On the other end of the spectrum, this time of year can also be marked my moments of comfort and healing when I pause and find peace- similar to easing into a hot tub that’s set outside in colder weather. So, while everything around is frigid, being in a hot tub is relaxing and peaceful- and similarly, there’s performances, parties, and presents to wrap, but a deep joy comes in the times I pause and reflect on the miracle of Christ’s birth and the faithfulness of God throughout the past year.  

And, honestly- most of the rest of the time- I’m somewhere in the middle feeling excited for what’s coming yet exhausted because of all we’re doing, grateful for what I have and also a but guilty for all I’m spending, loved and loving towards people I care about but also longing for people I’ve cared about who are no longer here.  Maybe someone else can relate?  It seems to be a season of co-existing- extremes- and while much of the year might be this way, the experience of it can be acutely felt around this time of year.

E: You have a wonderful new ministry “Don’t Hold Back”.  Will you talk about where this started and how God has led you to create this ministry?

W: Yes, Erin, I’d love to elaborate- thank you for the opportunity.  You know, I was just at an appointment this week, and as I was talking with my doctor, she opened up and shared a little about the hard time she is having buying all the presents and doing all the things- but not because she doesn’t want to- but it is hard to feel like it even matters because someone she cared about has just recently encountered a massive tragedy in her life.  She feels heavy with the reality of what her friend is going through and yet, it feels so challenging- wanting to help but not knowing how to.  This isn’t the only conversation I’ve had like this either- in the past week, I’ve talked with the friend of someone who lost their two year old son to a terminal illness, a concerned friend of someone who is in a dark place with mental illness, the friend of a mom who’s son just receiving a life-altering diagnosis, and the mother of a daughter who is contemplating self-harm and struggling with her identity.  To be clear- this is just in my typical interactions- this is not taking place in any kind of therapy room.  This is the reality of our world when we begin to listen for it- people everywhere are facing some extremely sad and distressing times. I have found that while people may be aware of some the pain their loved ones are enduring, after a casserole, a card, and an initial conversation to say “I’m sorry”, not many people feel comfortable knowing what to do or say next to show they care.  

I know in my own life, which includes multiple seasons of my own trials and heartaches as well as walking through hard times with others who are struggling,  I have never been more convinced that people don’t need another retreat, a book, a course, or a conference when they’re grieving- although these things can be so helpful- but what they REALLY need is a FRIEND, a community, who is committed to loving them for the long haul.  They need someone who will grab the Kleenex’s and embrace the tears, the jumbled thoughts, the intense feelings, the uncomfortable interactions, and stay committed and engaged to see them through the grief until the healing and beyond. I know in my life, I would not have made it through the traumas and trials I have had to endure had it not been for God’s continued faithfulness and a community of friends who have been with me in each wilderness season.

So, I’ve taken my life experiences, my decade of professional experience as a teacher and school counselor, and my training as a licensed professional counselor to formulate and launch the mission of Don’t Hold Back Don’t Hold Back exists to equip people with practical tools and insight so that they can love people well when they’re going through the worst.  It aims to eradicate isolation and loneliness- especially in the hard times - as people provide gracious and effective help to hurting people who need it the most.

E: For many, the holidays can be very painful.  Whether they are mourning the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship no longer present, the hurt of family dynamics/stresses… How can we love those in this time?

W: Oh, Erin, this is such a great question.  And I imagine people can Google to find specific gifts and ideas of commemorative gifts or acts of service that you could do. And I’m all for these things. However, what I’m about to share is not something you can add to your Amazon cart, but they are things that hurting people are desperate for this time of year.

If you’re wanting to show hurting people that you love them well especially during the holidays I think a very simple, yet powerful, framework that you can keep in mind is “Be, See, Free”.  

When you’re interacting with someone who is grieving this holiday season, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to be with them and to let them be.  When it comes to being with them, I’m not talking about being in close physical proximity with them, although that can be comforting.  Instead I mean “being with them” on an emotional level- so when they feel sad, access your own sad and let tears fall. When they feel angry, be there with them- let them rant on and on and then ask “What else?” and let them just feel what they feel. Empathy can be misunderstood because we sometimes think it means understanding how someone is feeling, but in reality you don’t have to cognitively understand how a person is feeling- but instead empathy is more along the lines of if they’re sad-  don’t try to ask the questions and help them figure anything out- just be sad with them.  In John 11:35 Jesus grieved with Mary and Martha when their brother died; likewise we can reflect and mirror the painful emotions of people in pain as a way to show them they are not alone. My three-year-old daughter always says, “Can you be sad with me? Let’s just be sad together.”  That’s what I’m talking about here; just let your mood match theirs and say, “I am with you” or “I’m not going anywhere”.   This touches on the other part of of this framework- just letting them be. When you accept someone’s down mood instead of trying to change it into something more pleasant or comfortable, you let them just be.  When you refrain from saying, “at least” and trying to point to a bright side, you are just letting them be.  This holiday season, be with your hurting friends in their pain and let them just be in theirs as they need to.  Then, in a moment when they’re feeling a little better, they will most likely remember the way they felt comforted by you in their pain and come to you in their hope or gratitude as well.

Secondly, keep the word “see” at the forefront of your mind this Christmas season.  Pray for eyes to see- actually see- your friends and neighbors this time of year.  Don’t look at their social media posts, don’t just glance their direction with a smile and a wave, SEE THEM.  Attempt to see the courage and exhaustion in the man who is enduring the first Christmas after the year of losing his wonderful father and his beloved dog.   Attempt to see the fear and the perseverance in the eyes of the wife who’s husband just got laid off.  And when you SEE this in someone, acknowledge it.  You can simply say to a dear friend, “I see you.  I see how you’ve decorated the tree like you always do and baked the cookies like you’ve always done, even as everything is different this year… I see your sorrow and your strength”. Moreover, with this word “see”, attempt to see what they are seeing.  When your friend’s husband is laid off, what might she see when she comes across other people dressed up for holiday parties or boxes of deliveries on other people’s porches?  She might see a loss of what was. She might only see fear that their kids will go without this year.  And when you see this, you can be more aware of their needs and how you might act to help alleviate them.  

Loving people well can mean seeing them and seeing what they see as a means to anticipate and address their needs without them ever having to ask.  Once when I was really having a hard time, and I still had to host people over, our friends came over and said, we know there are last minute things to do that you haven’t yet done, and we’re not leaving until we do them.  The husband went to town on cleaning our bathroom and the wife gave the kitchen a proper scrub down.  Then, they offered to have pizzas delivered the next day so that we wouldn’t have to cook again at the end of a tiring day.  My husband and I felt so seen.  Our needs were anticipated, and they were taken care of.  You will love people well if you’re able to see them this time of year.

And finally- remember the word “free”.  This comes back to the free gift of grace.  When we experience God’s grace- it’s not because we’ve earned His love, it’s because He chooses to give it.  This is the way we can love people who are hurting this time of year- with grace. A hurting person already feels weighed down enough, we don’t want to be a part of heaping anything else on them like pressure or expectations.  Instead of sharing our opinions or expectations on what decisions they are making as they have to navigate holidays while grieving, instead of having expectations for them to do what they’ve always done, we commit to loving them without conditions.  If a hurting person can only come to the family gathering for one hour instead of four, we give them grace.  If a hurting person is unable to contribute anything to the meal, we give them grace.  If a hurting person, doesn’t “seem like themselves” we give them grace.  If a hurting person offends us in some way, we can remember this word “free” and give them grace. It can help us love others well as we remember we’re loved by Christ no matter what, and that’s the kind of way we want to love our friends and family this time of year.  

Likewise, we remember the word “free” as we also show ourselves grace- we’re not going to love people perfectly- we’re going to say the wrong things, do the opposite of what is helpful, and feel our own emotions during this holiday season.  It is only when we remember and receive our peace and grace from the Lord, are we free to repent, apologize if we need to, and then continue to genuinely and freely love others.  

Hopefully keeping these three little words in mind - Be, See, and Free- will help you love people well in BIG ways during this time of year.

For more information on Don’t Hold Back, please send us an email at or visit our website or . We have two upcoming zooms on January 11 and January 25 if you would like to check our community and have support as you love people well who are going through the worst. On the website you will also find a place to sign up to receive a free download of “10 Texts That ACTUALLY Help Your Hurting Friend”.

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Thank you Whitney. This is so important for us to learn.

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