The Holidays and Grief

How is your grief during the holidays?  Does it bring up your pain so you avoid, or do you throw yourself into it and fake it to make it? I’m not exactly sure it’s either or.

The first holiday season after my husband died, I was mostly a zombie with moments of reality thrown in. The body gives us a gift during times of duress, it’s called shock. Death shock usually starts to wear off between 6-12 months after a loss. I was at month 8 that year and still very fragile.

I don’t recall much that first holiday season. I do remember putting up a small tree. I had bought an electric pink Christmas tree the year before so after Thanksgiving that year I ventured into the garage to find that tree. I thought if I embraced the holidays instead of pushing it away, I might find a little speck of joy.

My late husband got a kick out of that pink tree. He was more of a traditional Christmas tree kind of guy and we would always get a live tree from Home Depot. He loved picking it out together, loading it onto his truck and ensuring it was perfectly straight in the stand. I never liked the idea of cutting down a tree to just throw it away later. I also didn’t like the mess they made. So, I surprised him the Christmas before by bringing home a 5’ tall electric pink Christmas tree I found at Big Lots. It was so tacky that it was actually beautiful. And being the guy that Glenn was, he went along with it. He just wanted me to be happy, always.

That first holiday season after I was suddenly widowed I was invited to my neighbors for Christmas Eve dinner. She always made a special meal on Christmas Eve that included Prime Rib or Lobster and Crab Legs, fine wines and beyond yummy cheeses and desserts. Her daughter was on the board of food and wine for some swanky private club for the 1% in downtown LA. She always brought the wine and often imported cheeses and caviar. I would hear about it all year leading up to the big event. That year I was their guest of honor.

The meal was delicious and my friend and her family were all so kind to me. I did enjoy the food and the wine was beyond anything I’d ever had before in taste and price! Yet, after about an hour into the meal I felt a big hole inside of me that weighed me down as if a huge pile of rocks had suddenly filled that whole. I just wanted to go back home where I felt safe. The home that my late husband and I shared felt like a nest those first few fragile months, as if Glenn was still there somehow. It was very intimate and hard to explain. I forced myself to not say anything and made it through dessert. They invited me to stay and play some fun games with them and to continue the celebrating. I just couldn’t bare so made up some excuse and ran back home to my nest.

I don’t remember much of anything else that first holiday season widowed. Memory loss during duress and grief is common so if this has happened to you, you aren’t getting dementia, it’s just grief.

Growing up the holiday season was always a special time for me. My family was poor yet my parents went out of their way to make it special. As a young girl I always thought I grew up in a rich family and had no idea how much my parents struggled to make ends meet. I suppose that is a part of why I still embrace this time of year. The special foods, the lights and sparkles everywhere, the music and the smiles.

I’ve met many others who are bereaved who choose to avoid the season altogether. Instead of bringing feelings of joy like it has for me, it brings sadness and a raw awareness of what they’ve lost. This is normal too. Many will do whatever is necessary to avoid pain, this is the human condition. We all do it in one way or another.

I met a fellow widow who went on a kayaking trip to the Gallopades on Christmas and said she found herself again while there.  “I was in the middle of nowhere, five thousand miles from home and I felt a spark of joy that I hadn’t felt since my husband died and knew I was going to make it,” she told me. I knew a man who had lost his wife and child in a horrific car accident just 3 months before. He chose to volunteer at his local homeless shelter during the holidays instead of doing any celebrating. He told me that in serving others who had so much less, he realized he did have things to be grateful for. Another person I knew chose to stay home and bind watch Netflix and pretend it was summertime by making margaritas and BBQ. Another did nothing at all.

All is of this is normal holiday behavior for the bereaved. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, this is the truth the world over. What is also normal the world over is that we love and miss our loved ones who are no longer with us. Its normal to miss them more during the holidays. Afterall, the holiday season is traditionally a time when friends and family get together to celebrate the season and their love for each other.

I’ve found that honoring our loved ones during this special time of year is a way to get through it. This could mean lighting a candle for them, listening to their favorite music, eating their favorite foods or doing something they liked to do. If you can do this, believe it or not, you may find that your grief doesn’t get worse but instead, you feel lifted up in a way. It’s hard to articulate because it’s a feeling that comes about when we honor our loved ones who have passed. It’s a spark of love that’s in our hearts and nothing can take that love away, no matter what.

My favorite saying is by the singer songwriter, Bruce Springsteen. He said, “So, you walk on through the dark because that’s how you get to the next morning.” So, happy holidays to you, whatever that means for you. You will get to the next morning, I promise you.



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