Grief at Christmas: How about just being Human?

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Every time a special occasion is pending, a certain birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or another Christmas, I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach about how I will handle it without those loved ones who have already passed on. Christmas is one of the toughest times of year for many of us living with invisible illnesses whether they be mental, emotional or physical.

One of the first feelings to follow that awful “boot to the stomach sensation” is a sense of, well, I guess it is called “shame.” Shame that I can’t just buck up and join in, shame that I need to take time out to have a little cry in the bathroom, shame that while everyone is toasting and cheering and jollying along I fight back the tears and an urge to flee all things overwhelmingly festive.

Why should we be ashamed of having any feelings at any time of the year? The answer is we should not feel ashamed of having our feelings, whatever and whenever they may be. Sometimes just gently allowing those feelings to pass through us is the only way out of the emotional funk we may find ourselves in during special occasions and celebrations. Sometimes the feeling won’t pass because the loss is so recent, we are grappling with such a an excruciating range of normal human emotions, we just have to live through it somehow in our own ways no matter the outside pressures.

The first Christmas without a loved one is, I find, always the worst. Every ornament they made or every tradition they participated in feels so hollow without them. That feeling intensified for me the more people told me “get with it” or “get over it” or “you just have to go on.” Advice like this is best ignored because it is so negating and disrespectful of not just the loved one we are trying to cope without but of ourselves and our feelings as though we have no right to have or process our own emotions.

The right to process our own emotions is something we are all entitled to.  Never let anyone tell you otherwise. Usually people behave in invalidating ways just because our mood or what we are doing does not fit in with their agenda. There is no excuse for that kind of insensitivity that can feel so like abuse to the tender, still grieving heart.

My solution is not a panacea, I have no answers for anyone other than myself. What I found myself doing was “little celebrations” between the seeming unstoppable tears I had to just let go of. These little celebrations were usually nothing anyone else could see or notice. It was about me coming to terms with a raft of special occasions ahead of me to get through.

Recently I attended a huge family dinner of 22 people and found myself twice needing and taking time to myself. I stepped outside and just stood there covered by the roof of the restaurant entry way, watching the rain fall and breathing slow, deep breaths while I thought of everyone gone before me. In the puddles, some as big as small ponds, I saw all the light being reflected back, the store lights, the street lights and the Christmas lights.

In those reflections I began to see that no matter what happens to us, no matter how many losses, the light was being doubled and tripled and shining back brightly no matter what. This little comfort was enough to get me back inside the door to join the party I was with and carry on.  After the dinner I took a teary bathroom time out and was heartened by the Christmas music playing, it seemed, to my soul, as the speakers released one of my mother’s favorite Christmas Carols. These are the little comforts I try to find everywhere, songs or sights that resonate with my soul and let me know it is okay to enjoy these things, to even be happy about them and perhaps even sing along if I am able to.

There is, in my opinion, no greater success than finding your own way through the dark grip of grief. While there is no one size fits all, we can all do things or enjoy things in memory of those we love. The very thing you find yourself teary about may be what also lifts your heart and lets you honor the memory of your loved ones. For me, giving back is always a way through these tough emotions because I can do it in honor of a loved one. Putting a toy under the local charity tree or just dropping some coins in the bell ringers kettle in honor of my loved ones went a long way to helping me come to terms with my losses.

Even in the falling of snow, that first magical snow that colors all things white and bright, I can hear my mother saying how she had to hurry to get the laundry in off the line before it froze stiff as boards while my father lamented the crazy drivers out there who still tried to drive like the roads were dry. Hearing those familiar voices in our heads or singing along to their favorite songs are just a couple of ways to celebrate those gone before us.

Take your time, take a breather or take a whole evening or day to yourself, whatever it takes for you to feel calm and able to face the festivities again. Finding what gives us comfort is such a gift to our own hearts, we need only to stay open to recognizing and receiving those little gifts, whatever form they may take.

Does this mean we won’t be sad or shedding tears through the events or holiday? No, it means the opposite. We are allowed to be sad or shed tears if we need to. We are all, after all, only human.

Wishing everyone a safe and peaceful Christmas.

(c) Janni Styles