Updated: Nov 16, 2021
The holidays--- that time immediately after Halloween when the stores start stocking Christmas decorations, and we start stockpiling expectations. The frenetic pace seems to start earlier and earlier. Thanks to COVID-19, we had the added challenge of a very real and present danger to our health. As Thanksgiving neared we weren’t just making menu choices, we had to weigh the risks of spending time with family, some of us canceling THIS year in order to ensure we could all be together next year. Post-Thanksgiving spikes in virus contraction, hard-to-come-by gaming systems, more CDC recommendations, and school closures added to the panic and grief we’ve collectively been feeling in 2020.
Grief, you say? Make no mistake, each of us has lost something this year.
And worst of all, over 311,000 American families have also lost loved ones due to COVID-19.* (*updated: 763k as of Nov 15, 2021). Countless others have been lost to cancer, old age, accident, and suicide. So what should we do, when the entire country is experiencing grief of some kind?
First and foremost, it is essential that we acknowledge our individual and collective grief. SEE the people in your life and what they’ve lost. Speaking of it is not offensive. In fact, it is usually appreciated.
There is a myth and a golden rule about grief.
MYTH: People do not want to talk about their grief. In reality, most people would like to the chance to voice their disappointment, loss, anguish, and pain. When someone dies the people around the mourner tend to avoid the topic but generally, mourners want to share why they miss their loved one.
GOLDEN RULE: People want to be seen and heard. Acknowledging their pain lets them know they are seen. If they choose to share more, listen.
Second, it is vital that we not compare or rank grief. Grief, like many things, is relative. What we can do is notice the humanity in grief by recalling a time when we felt loss.
Lastly, we must remove the stigma from mourning, which is often perceived as weakness. In our society, we are quick to encourage children to get back to school or employees to get back to work, as if the diversion will help the healing process. Nothing helps the healing process except experiencing it all and time.
As I mentioned in a previous post about grief anniversaries, the dread of an approaching holiday can occur because we are forced to face the reality of our loved one’s passing.
The holidays are especially difficult for someone who is grieving because they often have memories of a loved one associated with the beauty and promise of the season. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or winter solstice, this time of year is about reflection, gratitude, light, love, and new beginnings. This can feel at odds with the void left by someone we love. We wonder “how can I go on? How can I celebrate when all I feel Is pain? How can I make plans when all I want is to go back to a time when my loved one was still here?”
On top of these big emotions, we heap tons of expectations and obligations. Especially for women who typically do a lot of the shopping, cooking, and preparation the holidays can take a toll on physical and mental health. And this year, we have the added stress of having to constantly figure out what is best and safe for our family members. Do we go to stores to shop for presents or buy online? Is it safe to see one another? Are we allowed to go to church and worship together? Often the answers to these questions are filled with bitter disappointment which comes at the end of the year that is already fraught with challenges.
We’re tired. We’re anxious. We’re stressed out. We’re doing the best we can to give our children a lovely holiday experience and yet for many of us, that means far less money in the bank, less food on the table, less reason to be joyful. So if you also actively grieving someone in December 2020 you are dealing with a LOT.
Here are some tips for surviving the holidays when you are grieving:
Feel your feelings. The old saying “better out than in” certainly applies to emotion. Emotions have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes we abruptly stop emoting, out of embarrassment or duty. Whenever possible, let yourself get all the way through the emotion. Consider this permission to whimper, sob, cry, wail, stomp around, or punch a pillow!
Honor yourself. Ask yourself “What do I need at this moment? Do I need to talk to someone? Look at pictures?” See if you can identify what would soothe you in a healthy way. Then see if you can zero in on and underlying feelings. Are you worried your loved one isn’t feeling missed? Is there some guilt going on? A good way to figure this out is through journaling.
Find ways to honor your loved one. Make them part of the celebration and renewal. Keep up traditions or start new ones! (see some of the specific things I do to honor my loved ones below)
Move your body. I cannot overstate this one enough. An emotion that does not get processed in our body gets stuck as trauma. I got a Rebounder so I could work out at home. I didn’t realize until I’d read a book on emotions how much that rebounder was helping me not just with cardio but with processing my mom’s death.
Consider doing something special for someone else. Acts of kindness actually help us feel better, too. Win-Win!
Here are the things that *I* do at the holidays when I’m feeling sad about losing my mom:
1. I listen to my mom’s favorite Christmas music. She loved classical and Celtic Christmas songs so those are my go-to's. And even though it makes me even sadder sometimes to listen, I lean into it. It is something ENDURING that can never be taken from me.
2. I decorate the tree with many of our family ornaments…the same ones I liked to hang when I was a child. In later years she favored and collected glass, crystal, and silver ornaments that made her tree simply shimmer and glisten. Now I get to add those to my own set. After she passed away I purchased a set of white feather angel wings. Placing those on the tree last I am making her very present in the process each year.
3. I talk to my mom. It is usually in the early morning before anyone else gets up. I turn on the tree lights, make coffee, and bask in the glow of the crystal and silver ornaments I inherited. I tell her I miss her and wish she could be here to see my son open presents. I thank her for making the holidays a special time…so filled with memories that it can be painful…and yet I’m grateful.
4. I keep up the tradition we had of dining on her amazing Bolognese sauce Christmas Eve. It’s a way of honoring her memory AND feeding my family at the same time.
5. I talk to her best friends. She has 3 or 4 super close friends and it warms my heart to speak to them during the holidays. Because these women were important to my mom, they are important to me.
6. I schedule a time with a grief therapist if I really need it.
7. I send a special gift to friends who have lost a parent in the previous year. It’s a small gesture but it lets them know I see them, and I understand their pain and sorrow.
8. Christmas Eve service at church is probably the hardest for me. I had all these visions and expectations of going together in her golden years…years she and I were both denied. But it here, in the songs, that I feel closest to her during the holidays. This year I’ll attend virtually so it won’t quite be the same, but I will feel her near me nonetheless.
I hope these suggestions help you deal with whatever grief you are experiencing right now. There have been many things said about the blessings a global pandemic has presented. I would venture to say that this shared experience has helped us see more of our similarities and softened our judgment as we fight a common enemy. My Christmas wish—one that I will wish upon a very special Christmas Star appearing in the night sky on December 21-- will be that we continue to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another.