By Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC
In a perfect universe, the holiday season is a happy blend of family and loved ones, rich with tradition, festivities, laughter, and love. However, this is not a perfect universe. For anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be a time of intense pain and longing; a season of sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness.
Grief and loss are difficult to experience at any time during the year; however, the holiday season can intensify our emotions, create distance and isolation from others, and fuel avoidance behaviors that can themselves become problematic. The following are thoughts and ideas for not only enduring the holidays with grief, but honoring our losses as an integral part of who we are and finding meaning, and even comfort, in our grief.
1. Our grief is the vessel that now carries our love for those we have lost.
My holiday memories include a particular Christmas in California when, in complete exasperation with our leaning tree in the living room, my father grabbed his drill and some wire out of the garage and essentially screwed the tree to the ceiling. In 39 Christmases, not one has passed without my throat tightening and my eyes tearing at the memory of my father that day. I loved him with all of my heart, and that was the last Christmas that he would be alive.
Each Christmas, the swell of grief that I experience reminds me of how deeply I loved my father. It brings him back to me. My grief is the very vehicle that transports my father from beyond the grave, beyond the decades, straight to my heart. I cannot remember my father without experiencing my grief — they are journey partners now, forever bonded in my psyche. I cannot take one without the other, so I accept that. I have learned to welcome the grief so that I can remember my father.
2. Instead of isolating us, our grief can be the bridge to others.
When we are experiencing the full weight of grief, we can easily convince ourselves that we are alone in our experience. And in reality, we are. However, standing around us are many others who are also feeling very alone and isolated in their grief.
During the holiday season many people also experience a pressure to be happy and festive. Even our salutations mandate that, “Happy Hanukkah!,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy New Year!” It can be quite uncomfortable at holiday parties or family dinners to hear someone suddenly begin to talk about how much they miss their loved one, but doing so could very well create a web of compassion and shared experience that would ultimately be very meaningful.
Yes, we as a society are often uncomfortable with grief and sadness, but this is a taboo that very much needs to be broken, especially at the holidays when we most need to be connected with our living loved ones. If your experience during the holidays is that you are remembering someone you loved who has died, I encourage you to honor that grief and share it with others whom you trust. Offer it as a point of possible connection and shared meaning with someone else who has experienced loss. This will not only deepen the experience of your memories, but it will deepen your relationships with your living loved ones.
3. Escaping grief is escaping life.
As at any other time of the year, there are many ways that we can attempt to move away from, or avoid, our grief. There is the busy-ness of preparing for the holidays, the chaos and noise of large family gatherings, and of course the plenitude of food and drink. We can easily keep ourselves occupied, distracted, stuffed, and intoxicated in an attempt to not feel our loss.
That in itself is a tragic loss. Grief, tears, heartbreak, and loss are a part of life. The wounds of loss form scars that we carry forever, and that can serve as reminders of those who have been a part of us. If you have physical scars from healed wounds, you know the feeling of touching them, rubbing them lightly, and feeling the skin that has grown over the wound; a tougher skin, thickened, uneven, and often still somewhat painful.
Those scars are a part of who we are, the experience of the wounds that they belong to now belongs to us. It lives in us, on us, and with us. To deny, avoid, or attempt to escape those scars is to reject a part of who we are. It is similar with our grief. We carry our grief within us, and we simply cannot deny our grief without rejecting who we are and those we have loved and lost.
The ways that we try to avoid our pain can also become the source of even deeper, more persistent pain. If we use the distraction of drugs or alcohol to numb our pain, we often feel an immediate benefit, but in time, may lose ourselves to addiction. The sad truth as well is that all of the numbing benefit we might initially receive is only that; a temporary anesthesia. The source of the pain remains.
The most effective way of dealing with the pain of loss is simply to turn and face it. To welcome it and hold it and feel it. In doing so we allow our grief to become a part of us, and to continue to carry the memory of those we have loved and lost.
During this holiday season, be still long enough to remember those we have lost and to be aware of those around us who may be carrying memories of their own. Use the holidays as a time to celebrate and honor our memories and the people who helped us create them. Establish a tradition of taking time to talk about our loved ones who have died, to keep them alive in our hearts, minds, and spirits.
Laughter and tears go hand in hand when we grieve our loved ones. However, there can also be circumstances that cause our grief to become overwhelming or complicated. If you find that your grief is causing you to have difficulty on an ongoing basis with your daily life, interfering with relationships, or causing you to look for escape in addictive behaviors, grief counseling can be vital in helping you to move forward.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
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Chris Lewis, EdS, LPC, is a therapist who specializes in Marriage Counseling, Family Therapy, and Individual Therapy with adults. She provides Marriage Counseling in Denver, Colorado at Maria Droste Counseling Center.