A few years ago, I planned for our Christmas family gathering like I did every year. I cleaned my home, wrapped all the gifts for our kids and grandkids, and created a delicious menu. But in the middle of the celebration, I had to excuse myself.
I went into the bathroom and started sobbing. My heart was raw from missing my family of origin in South-Africa, and I was having trouble feeling happy. What was normally a joyous celebration was colored by the overwhelming pain I felt.
Not every Christmas celebration is quite this harrowing, but for me, there's always a little bit of grieving associated with this time of year.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is...
You’re Not Alone
I'm well aware that I'm not the only one who experiences this during the festive season. The holidays can be a wonderful time filled with family, friends, and good food. It’s fertile ground for making memories and sharing tender moments.
But it can also rub a hurting heart raw. You may be aching for any number of reasons. Perhaps you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or simply pining for those who can't be with you on Christmas day...
Maybe you just lost a beloved pet or separated from your partner or heard you were downsized. Perhaps you’re missing a friend you’re estranged from. Maybe you're struggling with health issues and you feel a little hopeless.
What you’re experiencing is grief. It’s the sadness, anger, and pain that comes from loss. Sometimes that loss may be big (such as death or divorce). Other times that loss may be smaller but it’s still just as powerful.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
If you’re going through a difficult time, don’t try to put on a brave face and tuck your emotions out of sight. You may be able to temporarily bottle up what you feel but those emotions will eventually surface.
Instead, give yourself permission to feel your pain. Let yourself grieve this loss. Lean into the sadness, anger, or fear right now. Acknowledge where you are on your journey without judgement.
Let It Be Different
Sometimes the hardest part of the holidays is remembering what was. Your loss may have changed how you celebrate and that alone can bring pain. Perhaps you and your children always put up the holiday decorations together. But with the divorce, your kids aren’t home much, and your holiday isn’t the same.
It’s okay to let things be different this year. Embracing a new tradition doesn’t mean that you’re letting go of the past or that you’re not still grieving. It’s about giving yourself the gift of growth.
Ask for Support
And just a little side note... you don’t have to cry alone in the bathroom (like I did). We are created for community and we thrive when we receive the support we need. But if no one knows about your loss, they can’t be there for you during this difficult time.
Tell a trusted friend or a family member about what you’re going through. You might say, “This holiday is difficult for me because I lost (name your loss). So right now, I feel (emotion you wish to express).”
Tell People What You Need
Understand that although your family and friends may long to support you, they may not know how to do it. They might be clueless about how to help and offer only trite suggestions or painful advice.
You can guide them through the process by telling those you love what you need. For example, you might say, “Before he died, Dave and I had date nights on Fridays. Would you be willing to get together nex Friday nights with me to do something fun?”
With the chaos of the holidays, it’s easy to let self-care routines begin slipping. Maybe you’re skipping out on the gym or going to bed late and missing out on precious hours of sleep. Perhaps you’re eating poorly or failing to take your medication.
Self-care is vital, especially when you’re walking through a season of grief. Focus on doing one good thing for your body each day – whether that’s going to the gym, getting enough sleep, or simply taking your medication on time.
Keep a List
Think about activities that calm you and help you relax. Make a list of them now while you’re feeling good. The next time you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious, you can pull out this list and do one activity from it.
Some activities you might want to add to your list include…
Be Kind to Yourself
Some people think grief is something they should just “bounce back” from. While it would be great if it were that simple, grief is not like stubbing your toe. The pain lasts far longer and goes much deeper.
It’s not uncommon to think you’ve grieved, and you’re done. You imagine you’re through the worst of it then something crops up and you feel the loss all over again, as if it were day one of your grief.
Understand that grief is not a destination. It’s not an exotic locale that you visit only once. Grief is a journey and that journey can be on-going for months, years, or even decades depending on what you’ve lost.
Discover Your Triggers
Certain sounds, sights, or smells may trigger a fresh wave of grief for you. Paying attention to what those triggers are can be helpful in learning to navigate them.
For example, you might be watching a movie where the main character is in the hospital and be reminded of the stillbirth of your first child. You may feel the trauma, shock, and pain all over again.
When you encounter a trigger, you don’t have to run from it or avoid it. Instead, acknowledge your emotions and express them. You might want to cry, pray, or punch a pillow. Do whatever feels right in the moment.
Grief Is Not Linear
Many people have heard of the five stages of grief. The idea is that during grief, you’ll walk through five distinct emotional phases. Typically, those phases look like this…
However, it’s important to remember that grief is not linear. You may be at the point where you’re bargaining and think you’ve made it through the first two stages of grief. Only to find an old t-shirt in the back of your closet that reminds you of your loss. Suddenly, you’re back in denial, thinking that this awful thing couldn’t have happened to you.
The truth is that most people cycle through the stages of grief several times and in a different order each time. That means no one person’s way of grieving will look exactly like yours (nor should it).
Delegate during Celebrations
If you're normally the one in charge of preparations for the holidays, it's easy to become overwhelmed and distressed, especially when you factor in the weight of grief.
Instead of thinking it all rests on your shoulders, share the burdens of your celebration with others. Perhaps the kids can handle the decorations while your sister plans the menu. Your partner can shop for the groceries while you buy the gifts.
Don’t feel bad about delegating during the holidays. It’s perfectly okay to need help, especially when you’re walking through a season of grief.
Celebrate without Guilt
At times during the holidays, you may feel joyful. You may experience brief moments of happiness and contentment. These feelings may be followed by guilt or sadness that you’re moving on.
You deserve to be happy. True, your life may never look the same again. You may always carry this loss with you. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t rejoice in the here and now. You can find wonder, comfort, and happiness in the beautiful present.