Grief During the Holidays

If I asked you what you think you should feel on the holidays, you’d likely say things like – joy, excitement, calm, love, connectedness, magic, lifted spirit, togetherness,

Should…such a shame word.

A lot of times during the holidays, we feel stress, stress, and more stress.

When we’re grieving, we can feel empty, lonely, sense of loss, sadness, disappointment, despair, apathy, hopelessness, numb, and guilt for feeling all of the above.

When we experience deep loss, there’s a grief that never leaves us. It’s a dark black hole that will never fully close. There’s no returning to normal because it doesn’t exist anymore. 10 days, 10 months, or 10 years later, the pain is the same. It manifests differently, and you learn how to live with it, but when it’s triggered, it stings the same. The glorious magic of the holiday season doesn’t change that. In fact, for some people, the holidays may trigger that pain more. While death is what we most commonly think of when we think of loss, there’s more to it than that.

In the midst of recently losing two people back to back to death not too long before the holiday season, I felt guilty for smiling, for feeling anything other than deep sorrow on that day. It was the first time I felt like I was alright, and at the same time, I felt like I was dishonoring my loss by being okay. In following years, I imagined the memories I could’ve been making, and felt an emptiness looking at those holiday group pictures getting a little smaller and smaller through the years. In experiencing other, more subtle forms of loss during the holidays, I was well aware of what could’ve been. I felt sad, disappointed, and frustrated at the circumstances of reality.

With the traditions, the people, the cooking, the planning, and whatever else that comes with holiday events, we’re reminded of what we’re missing. Thinking about all of the warm, fuzzy feelings we think we’re supposed to experience…and then feeling things that appear to be in direct conflict, can be confusing, lonely, and frustrating.

Whether you find the holidays meaningless and go with the motions, you go above and beyond to make it mean something, or you dread the holidays altogether, whether you feel guilty for actually feeling joy after loss, it’s okay, you’re normal, and you don’t need to change how you feel. Your response to your grief is acceptable. You don’t need permission from anyone to feel how you do, nor do you deserve to experience any shame.

Here’s what I’ve learned –

Grief can make the holidays feel meaningless. This is a loss in itself. Losing the magic that we once felt can also be painful, and we have to grieve that loss, too. We may never get that magic back, and we have to be okay with that. It’s not an injustice to what we do have to feel this way. You can’t force yourself to feel something you don’t, and you aren’t obligated to.

You can feel a range of emotions. You can experience joy and sorrow simultaneously. You can feel grateful and broken. You can have the magic and honor your loss. If you only feel one side of these things, that’s alright too. Feelings themselves are not bad. Feelings are simply that – feelings. They can coexist even if that coexistence seems unnatural. Some years or particular holidays may feel different than others, and that’s alright too.

Talk about your loss when YOU want to. People may want to talk about memories in a way that feels overwhelming for you. You can excuse yourself. You’re not obligated to have the conversation. Alternatively, people may avoid the topic at all costs. You’re allowed to begin the conversation. If you get the sense that others around you don’t want to talk about it, you can journal, call a friend, write a letter to the person you lost, find some space by yourself, close your eyes, and talk to that person like they’re still right next to you, anything. You control what you talk about, what you reminisce on, and who you talk about it with.

Remember that we all grieve differently. This means acceptance of others’ grief as well. While you’re entitled to your feelings and your reaction to loss, others are entitled to their unique response as well. It’s sometimes easy to feel like others should feel how we feel, but those unfair expectations promote shame and disconnection.

In early years, it will suck. Create a new normal for the holidays if you’re ready. Practice past traditions if you’re ready. It may take you 10 years to pull out mom’s recipe box, or to sing the Christmas songs that dad used to. Grief doesn’t end, but you will learn how to work with it.

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