Saying ‘No’ to Holiday Traditions is OK After a Loss

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For many of us, for much of the time, it is hard to say “no.” Even when we’re busy, even when we’re tired, even when it’s something we really don’t want to do. It’s especially hard when it’s something that we’ve done before, when it’s been our routine, our habit, or our tradition. We get into patterns and they’re hard to change. One of our patterns and traditions can be saying “yes” when asked, especially by friends, family, and those we respect.

One of the harder voices to say “no” to is that voice in our head. The one that guides us to what we “should” do. This voice has high expectations. Often this voice is the voice of wisdom and helps us balance our needs, our aspirations and our impulses. It can be helpful. It’s the voice that supports the idea that sometimes being mature is doing what we don’t want to do when we don’t want to do it. Saying “yes” when part of us, a strong but less wise part of us, really wants to say “no.”

There are times, however, when this voice in our head becomes unreasonable and something of a tyrant. It gets caught up in appearances and shoulds, and then it shoulds on us. Because sometimes “no” is the right response to a request. Sometimes “no” is what we should say when presented with an invitation, opportunity, or expectation. Sometimes “no” is what needs to be said to the way we’ve done things before. “No” even to family traditions.

We get this need to say “no” and reprioritize when a serious illness crashes into our lives. When our child, spouse, or parent gets the big diagnosis. When we get the big diagnosis. What was important before, on the “have to do” list, now becomes negotiable or off the list entirely. In a healthcare crisis, expectations get a new and needed reevaluation. How important is this in reality (compared to other things that are not negotiable)? Do I now have time for this? Do I have the energy for this? Is this really something I want to do? A friend living with cancer described it this way: “Fewer priorities…I guard what I do with my time like a soldier now. None to waste, especially on fatiguing chemo. I just let go of so much now…”

After a death, it can be the same. Priorities can be fewer and reordered with only so much energy to spend. What felt important before no longer has the same power, draw and pull. Death is the great prioritizer. When it calls, we drop the rest and give it top billing, not because we like it but because it’s that important. And in the shadow of death, or perhaps in the light of death, we can often see things more clearly than we did before. With this new clarity, we can be inspired to live differently, make new choices, and make old choices with greater intentionality. And in this new world, grief world, we can be better at saying “no.”

Which brings us to holiday seasons. No time of year has more expectations and shoulds, both within and without, than holiday seasons. We get messages all around about how they are supposed to go. The foods to prepare and eat. Decorations that are required. Smiling family gatherings. Holidays which were intended to be meaningful times of remembrance and celebration can become gauntlets of expectations and activities.

Holidays don’t have to be that way. They can be times where we pick and choose what is meaningful and worth doing. Where we look those voices of expectation in the eye and politely say, “No thank you, not this year. I only have so much time and so much energy, and I am guarding both like a soldier.”

When I worked in the pediatric cancer world, I would often see parents reprioritize their lives. Many would comment that they had a different view of what was really important and worth their time. They said “no” to many things they would never have said “no” to before. This change in perspective was powerful and I would wonder if it lasted or what parts of it lasted in the years to follow after cancer treatments had ended.

Here is where the memory of the early days of loss can be our friend. Memory of those days of clarity and fewer priorities can continue to teach us and support us when those should-y voices regain their strength and try to take over again. The wisdom of grief can help us say “no” when it’s not worth it, to say “yes” when it is, and to sort out the differences. There is a freedom to be found in grief, and it is one holiday (and life) invitation that deserves a “yes” in response.

 

Greg Adams

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Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two young adult children—a son in college and a daughter working in-between college and graduate school. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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