When I began this 3 part series, I was honestly unaware of the struggles some people face around the holidays. I understand family issues, I understand creating boundaries, but I have not experienced loss the way some of my friends had; and as I started listening to their stories, I realized:
1. many people who are grieving do not talk about it
2. most people do not know how to support friends who are grieving.
This post is dedicated to the grief side of the holidays. And how sometimes, joy and peace are far from the way you feel. And that’s okay.
Kristen Carnes is a dear friend of mine and inspiration to me. When I interviewed her for this piece it became clear to me that her voice should take center stage. This is her story with a few quotes from my interviews mixed in. Her message, whether you are the grieving or supporting the grieving:
Reflections of a thirty-something woman learning to celebrate life after her own divorce; dealing with her hero’s struggles with Lewy Body Dementia; and grieving the death of all her beloved grandparents, two life-altering mentors, and her every-cherished mother:
Regardless of one’s faith, holidays typically revolve around family, traditions, and a spark of the divine. It is easy to celebrate when dinner details are perfect, all have good health, and life is “on track.” But what happens during the holidays after loss?
Loss is complex. Perhaps it was a self-elected one and means the end of a relationship that was going nowhere. It could be the loss of camaraderie as you change jobs or move to a new city. While these losses can be poignant, you still were able to calculate their tolls and outcomes. Losses that befall you have a different emotional twist. Cancer or a car wreck robs you of a loved one. Infidelity or the death of communication takes a sacred bond right out of your embrace. A long-loved soul struggles with Alzheimer’s. These losses feel more ambiguous, more cutting, and more unfair because you had no choice in making them a reality.
You do however have a choice in what your recovery looks like.
Will you bury your feelings or explore them?
Will you connect with others or elect seclusion?
Will you value momentary happiness or lasting joy?
We feel obligated to choose one side from each view when really, a lasting recovery means recognizing there is a time for all of these reactions. We can push on what hurts and then let it recover a while. We can engage in late-night holiday cheer and still give ourselves permission to be a happy hermit. We can enjoy smiles over perfect sugar cookies while finding a kaleidoscope of beauty in our throbbing emotions.
Whether you or someone you love is grieving, realize there are many ways to grieve.
Decide to be kind.
So how are you kind to yourself during loss? Here are a few ideas:
Some embrace tradition, seeing it as a way to honor their loss. If this is you, keep the big family meal at the same time of day. Add a unique honor to those not at the table by toasting them or sharing a memory. Use the actual dish for the actual recipe. Shake out the same celebratory tablecloth. Do what feels right.
Some perceive uninterrupted tradition as negating their loss. If this is you, change the time of the meal. Serve new dishes and play new music. Strip away “ought to” and focus on what brings you life. See this as a time of renewal, a time to start fresh.
If you’re like me and find yourself the unexpected matriarch at age 31, you can do a mix of these techniques. I used Nana’s dishes and fancy glasses, but I could never replicate Mom’s stuffing so instead of becoming a recipe martyr, I picked a recipe Mom would have loved to try. We filled our three empty chairs with three of my favorite people. We all cried. It’s all right; I seem to feel that the tears made dessert taste better!
Do you process out loud?
Maybe you need to tell every kind stranger just how much you miss your loved one. Maybe you blog through your process to healing. But what if you are a more private person? Maybe your monologue is best shared with one dear friend over a quiet coffee. Maybe it hurts too much to say just yet. Maybe you funnel your energy into some volunteering venture that benefits people within your very reach. All personality types can benefit from some counsel. You may meet privately with a professional or a trusted friend who has graciously suffered loss. You may find a good fit with a group at a place of worship or community center where you can both share and listen to stories.
Be kind to yourself.
Give yourself permission to be a little unpredictable this year. You may feel like a Netflix marathon by the time you’re done getting gussied up for that party. Mindy Lahiri would love that you eye guzzled her episodes while wearing your prettiest heels!
Be kind to others:
How are you kind to others during your own loss?
Your heart will help you through this season, but try to balance its opinions with tenderness from friends and family. Be kind when loved ones worry about you. Depending on your relationship, you can customize your answer. Nosey people can be redirected. Loving people can be shown a peek of your process. Worried people can be encouraged that this is only for a season and not your new normal. Regardless of who is asking, take a breath and count to three before answering. It gives you a window of self-reflection prior to your response. People love you and worry for you. There is a balance to maintain your heart boundaries without hurting others who only want the best for you.
Supporting others going through loss:
Very simply you need to listen. Your quiet heartbeat is all your friend needs. We fear not saying the right thing or saying too much or not enough; however, the fear we need to alleviate is not for ourselves but for our friend – the fear of not being heard.
Tips on modifying the traditions: http://www.vitas.com/hospice-care-services/bereavement-and-grief-resources/coping-with-grief-during-the-holidays
General ideas...even ones for Valentines: http://grief.com/grief-the-holidays/
Supporting someone going through grief: http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3366