Grief and the holidays are a tough combo. They go together about as well as peanut butter and pickles. Awful. Mourning a loss during this season of joyful celebration is an exercise in endurance and suffering. I know of what I speak: I lost my father, husband, aunt, and step-brother all in December—three in the same December.
For a couple of decades, the advent of winter left me in a pall of bleak emotionality. I would have been perfectly happy if I could have skipped directly from Halloween to Easter. I would just as soon forgotten Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day: depressingly festive holidays all, for the freshly bereft.
How does one cope with the onslaught of this season in a culture that has no room for suffering? How do you deal with the sadness and loneliness and pressure? My answer, both as therapist and someone who’s been there, is to stop trying to fit your sad, square body into a socially sanctioned round hole. Trying to be who you were, or who you think you should be for others, adds an unnecessary layer of pain and guilt to your already piled-high plate. You don’t have to pretend. You are grieving.
It is hugely unfortunate that we no longer honor the traditions of mourning. Back in the day, no one would have dreamed of trying to go about their business or celebrate the holidays as usual following a loss, and no one else would have expected them to. It was important to acknowledge and respect both the loss of a human life and the suffering of those who remained. There were black wreaths and armbands and an atmosphere that honored the passing and made room for those who mourned.
Our current culture extols the virtue of “healing” and “getting on with things” without the benefit of proper and vital grieving—which is exactly what is necessary to heal and get on with things—and grieving takes time and energy.
The holidays often serve only make you feel worse for the fact that you are, in fact, not happy at all, so why not let them go for this year (and maybe next)? Don’t try to do all the usual things: don’t make the pie, don’t go the party, don’t force yourself to buy gifts, and most importantly, don’t feel guilty about not being happy.
I’m not saying to boycott the holidays or be a Scrooge; I’m simply suggesting that you not put unnecessary pressure on yourself to behave as though everything is normal for you when it’s not. If maintaining your rituals helps you, then by all means, keep them. But if you’d rather not, then give yourself a pass. Everyone will understand, and if they don’t, well, that’s their problem.
One Thanksgiving after I was widowed, I eschewed the whole, traditional thing and instead took a giant bag of carrots out to the barn where I rode and fed each horse a treat. I enjoyed the cold and the quiet and the simple pleasure of my solitude with the animals. It felt very, very good not to be trying to “do” the expected thing. It was healing and (obviously) memorable.
Listen to your heart, and care for it like a fragile fledgling with a broken wing, which is what you are. Be kind and gentle and very, very protective. If children are involved, you may want to keep some sort of celebration to help them have a sense of security and constancy, but this does not mean that you have to go whole-hog. Children know what’s going on. Like you, they are sad and scared, and they need to feel safe, but they also will benefit by you honoring your grief and making room for theirs. Be real and feel: that’s my motto.
The more you allow yourself to be real and to have your feelings and express them in healthy ways (or even small doses of ways unhealthy), the faster you will heal, the stronger you will become, and eventually—take my word for it—you will be happier for it. The joy that emerges after grief is profound and wonderful. I wrote a whole book about it. So if you feel more Charley Brown than Snoopy, that’s totally okay. There will be happy holidays again, made all the sweeter for the grief that broke your heart and made it bigger.
An addendum: Another December death has crossed my life like a cold, shooting star in the winter night sky, leaving a sweet and very sad impression in my well-worn heart. Last night, December 5, as I lay beside my mother in her bed—the same bed in which I bid my father goodbye 41 years ago— I held my mother’s hand as she slipped away from her body and from my life-as-I’ve-known-it for more than 50 years. This Christmas I will be reminding myself that in the midst of darkness, light exists, and that in the midst of death, life exists, and that all of them are aspects of the ONE, which is LOVE.