By Will McNeese, LPC
You may be experiencing the heavy burden of grief during the holidays. You are not alone. Grief is not an emotion, but a journey that contains many different emotions at different points along the way. We grieve when we experience loss. Grief is the process of remembering the loss of something that was important to us. A loss that results in grief is not always a person, but can be the loss or change of a relationship, job, pet, tradition, dream, or anything else.
For Rachel, the holidays were spent alone with painful memories. Her parents both died from cancer while she was in college. The memories of her family’s last Christmas together seemed to be one of the only reminders of who she once was. Her marriage ended when her second child was two years old. Her ex-husband, a lawyer, was able to use his many connections and power to win custody and dictate harsh visitation rights. Rachel spent most holidays without her children, without her family, and without much hope, joy, or peace.
George tries to keep up the “holiday spirit” when his children and grandchildren are in town. However, since his wife passed away two years ago, his external cheerfulness masks an internal hollowness. George knows his happiness is forced—his children know it too. He tells himself to be cheerful for the grandchildren, but if he could have it his way, he would be back at work instead of sitting at the house pretending to be happy.
As Matthew reflected on his childhood experience of Christmas holidays, one word came to mind—Insane. To start, there was always a bitter battle between his divorced parents about who Matthew and his brothers would spend time with for the different parts of the holiday. One parent would have them for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and the other would get them for Christmas Dinner and New Year’s or visa versa. Matthew’s parents would bicker for hours trying to “settle the score” on what percentage of the visitation rights had been fulfilled, violated, or negotiated over the previous year. The result was usually some awkward splitting up of the holidays that left everyone involved exhausted, on edge, and dissatisfied. As Matthew became an adult, he found himself dreading the advent of Christmas. He even thought, “I would have a much better relationship with my family if we cancelled Christmas altogether.”
When we build a loving and bonded relationship with someone, our memories and idea of that person form an imprint on our brains and hearts, which endures even when that person is not around us. Grief is the process of our memory and imprint of that person slowly adjusting to the reality that they are not with us as they once were.
Circumstances that remind us of our loved one then trigger an awareness of their absence. The awareness of this absence can then trigger a myriad of emotions ranging from sadness to fear to anger to guilt. Nothing can be said to “fix” grief, for it is not a problem that can be solved by a solution, action, or answer. Grief is a path that must be walked.
For those who have lost loved ones or are away from their loved ones, holidays can be much harder than normal days for many reasons. For one thing, many people are off work or out of school. This break in routine can allow time for the mind to wander and remember. The Christmas season can also hold years of joyful, comforting, and happy memories of loved ones. Experiencing the same holiday, but with the absence of the loved one, can be like experiencing the loss all over again.
Grieving happens individually and relationally. In other words, healthy grieving involves times of solitude and times of sharing your grief with supportive people. Depending on your personality, you may gravitate towards one or the other. It is important to do both. With that in mind, here are some things that many people find helpful in their journey of grief—particularly during the holidays.
When possible, allow yourself to grieve. Taking time to grieve is not a sign of weakness, selfishness, or a lack of trust. We were created to love people and are therefore created to grieve their loss. The process of grief works better when we address our need to do so with intention. Some people are afraid that if they start grieving, they will not be able to stop. Most people find that allowing their selves to grieve leads to a greater sense of peace, strength, and acceptance. Responding to our grief’s emotion with compassion, patience, respect, understanding, and tending to needs seems to resemble the way Christ responds to the broken hearted.
In my life, I am not always able to respond to my own grief’s emotions in this way. This brings me to my second point: Don’t walk this path alone. We are made for relationships because we are not complete and whole on our own. When you are ready, invite another person to walk this path with you. This can be done by spending time with someone who knows you, talking about what memories are on your mind, doing things to commemorate your loss, or visiting a certain place. Sometimes our immediate social group (family, friends, or church) may be unable to offer much support due to their own grief or a lack of understanding or training. In these times, it may be helpful to consider joining a support group or seeing a counselor.
Grieve through actions that have meaning to you. Every person will find different actions meaningful in their grief. Actions such as visiting gravesites, looking at photographs of loved ones, crying, journaling, talking to friends, writing songs, poems, or stories, or finishing projects that the loved one started, are all richly symbolic actions that can help express grief. Find out what events or actions have meaning to you and your grief. The bible is full of God telling people to make memorials and perform sacraments for the purpose of remembering.
The last thing I would offer is to place yourself in setting in which you commune with God. God gives us many ways to commune with Him. One pertinent manner is lamenting—pouring out our grief and emoting our sadness, anger, pain, and lack of joy. Pour out your heart knowing that there is One who knows and understands, he is acquainted with grief—not just grief in general, but your grief. He came to bring an end to death and to bring reconciliation to those things that seem irreconcilable—the living and the dead, father and son, husband and wife, God and Mankind.
In this weary world of sin, death, and loss, I long for His return. I long for the day when all things will be made right. I leave with the words of this hymn:
“Come thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free,
From our fears and sin release us,
Let us find our rest in thee!”
Will McNeese, LPC, LMFTA, is a counselor at Summit Counseling with experience working with families and individuals, including children and adolescents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.