Silent Night: Grieving During the Holidays

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By: Taylor Ariel Pettway

There is so much of life’s experience wrapped up in the acts of living, loving, and losing the ones you love. This is no more poignant than during the holiday season. For many of us, it is a time of community, a time of reflecting on the gifts we have been given, and a time of remembering and making memories whether you are learning grandma’s poundcake recipe for the third time or organizing the “Friendsgiving” for some old classmates in the city. For those of us who have lost loved ones, what are often the usual feelings surrounding the holidays – joy, gratitude, hopefulness –are replaced by even bigger feelings of dread, depression, and longing.

It is an understatement to say that the loss of a loved one is experienced over a lifetime. The little things that you didn’t know you quite remembered can come cascading towards your senses at any time; the scent of peppermints and lemons in a scarf, that old song you two used to sing together comes on Pandora, their favorite cooking show as you click past the Food Channel, or a commercial for their beloved football team’s rivalry game. Those memories can take your breath away and evoke all the responses in your body that make your mind think that you’re losing them right then all over again. This is what grief is like – a constant remembering and a thin line between a warm smile and screaming about the meta/maybe physical hole you feel in your chest at the thought of their absence. Add the rituals and traditions ushered in by the holiday season, and the shadows of times past can feel immense and almost unbearable.

Unfortunately, there are not many ways past it but to go through it, to feel it, and to honor it. I read somewhere that grief is the price we pay for loving, so it makes sense that it would feel like a mountain to brave the seasons when we loved the most. While nothing will be able to stop time or take away the pain of missing our mothers, fathers, grandmas, loved ones, and friends, you’ll find some extra love below to spread to yourself or to someone around you who has found themselves at this particular stop on their journey through grief.

Step into Your Feelings

Give yourself the permission to feel all of your biggest feelings. Acknowledge all the sadness, anger, regret, or even ambivalence you may have. Lean into the feelings, the memories that arise. Allow yourself to think about your last times together and even the end, too. Grief is also about mourning the loss of the life you lived with that person and the life that will never be lived. Your whole narrative around the loss is yours and no one else’s, and it is important. Give it some room during the holidays. If you start crying as you are kneading the dough or frying the turkey, it is okay (just make sure you step away from all ovens and fryers and get your cry on). Contrary to popular belief, you cannot cry yourself to death, so take what you need. You may not be as expressive and would rather perform you and your lost loved ones’ favorite holiday ritual: watch the 24-hour marathon of It’s a Wonderful Life. Do that, too. Exhale, and carve out some time to really feel your longing because they deserve it, and so do you.



Find a Way(s) to Honor your Loved One

The last Thanksgiving I spent with my mother, she, my siblings, and I rode around for two and half hours looking for fresh seafood to put in the last pot of gumbo my mommy would ever make me. So, rest assured, mastering her gumbo and having it for the holidays was one of the most important missions that I had. You will find your own missions. It is true that the holidays will be different. It is true that things may be off. The table may look and sound and smell differently, but you have the opportunity to create new traditions and new rituals that celebrate your loved one and your memories together. Sit the youngest grandchild in their chair as a way to ease the space and celebrate the newness of life in the family line by way of the legacy of your loved one. Maybe cooking the dinner this year is too taxing for you because of everything that has happened. Help your family plan a brunch, and tell everyone to bring an item. Try being flexible at letting some new experiences in so that you can actively mourn for the life lost and welcome in the life yet lived.

Make Sure There’s Extra Love Around

Because of the nature of the holidays, there are typically an influx of people bubbling about and making plans. Your inclination may be to withdraw and try to sleep from November 1st to January 2nd. However, consider that your loved one had other folks who loved them and that maybe you all could need each other most right now. Be open to leaning on and vocalizing your thoughts and feelings to your other friends or family members that were also in relationship with your loved one. Using your tribe allows others to share in the new life of remembering and finding creative ways to ease the pain. Few people will understand what you are going through unless they have been through it, but it does not stop them from wanting to love on you share this time together in whatever way you may need.

The holidays can be a special time for us all and for so many different reasons. If you are missing the ones you have lost this holiday season, keep remembering them. Let your memories light your laughter, and their love, wipe your tears.  It is okay if your grief is coming home for the holidays, too.