Holidays Remind us of Loss
The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration. We see friends and family who we haven’t spent time with for a while. We attend gatherings and review the year, revel in our accomplishments, talk about the kids, laugh and enjoy food and drink together. Inevitably there are people who are no longer with us to help celebrate. We relive the loss. We remember how much we loved them. We think about how much we wish they could be here with us. We remember how good it was when they were around. Often many around seem to be able to just move on and enjoy themselves. This gives even more contrast to how empty we feel. Grief becomes a silent companion in the room with us, a constant reminder that there is someone missing. If we stay stuck in our grief, then holidays can start to become a time of increased sadness, and not a time of celebration at all. People sometimes dread holidays because of this, becoming depressed even months ahead of time in anticipation of these “anniversary” reminders.
A little sadness is ok
First off, sometimes people get stuck in this trap of grief over the holidays because they misinterpret what grief really is. It is normal to be a little sad when you think about missing someone who has died. It is normal to wish you could talk to a parent or old friend who is no longer here. It is normal to feel that this loss, and holidays are good at highlighting the fact that there is someone who is no longer at the table. However, with grief we tend to suffer more. Grief, by its very nature is temporary. We work through stages – the ones talked about in books, but usually not in that order and sometimes not every one of those stages. Usually, most often, we live through it, and living our lives reminds us that there is still good in the world. If you just get a little teary eyed when you hear that song someone liked, or eat that desert that was their favorite, then join the club of being human. It’s ok. Share what your thinking. Make a toast to that someone special. This is not grief, it is normal to miss someone and be sad no and again.
There are times though when grief is “unresolved”. Sometimes we bury it. We never really worked through the loss and so it’s still there just as painful – perhaps hidden away in our subconscious storage area. With the holidays it becomes too hard to keep the storage container door shut and out it pours – all our boxes of memories and emotions. In short grief contains feeling stuck in sadness, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt (if I could have done something, talked more to the doctors, they could have saved him…). We feel overwhelmed by these feelings and it seems impossible that we could ever feel better. If you feel this way at every holiday it is probable that therapy could help you work through this . You don’t have to feel so horrible 5 times a year.
Society doesn’t help in all this. Made for tv movies are full of sentimentality and drama that makes us feel like we should dwell in our suffering or else we are somehow not devoted enough. We have perhaps over-emphasized that it is “healthy to feel emotions” to the point that sometimes we think “if I don’t feel intensely sad about this then I don’t really care”. Popular music is full of lyrics that are deeply unhealthy “I can’t live without you”, or “I’ll never be the same without you”. These words seep into our psyche and we think that it is true. That person “should be here”. Of course we wish they could be, but in reality none of us are here forever, there is no “should” about that.
A way to keep connected.
Sometimes people stay stuck in their grief as a way of feeling closer to the person they have lost. If I am intensely sad then I know that the relationship I had with them is real. If I am distraught, it is proof of how close we were. If I just move on and be happy then maybe it says I didn’t really love them? So we stay sad in order to feel closer. We fear that if we didn’t feel this way that maybe somehow we’d lose that connection, or we might forget that person. Unfortunately this fear focuses us on only our sadness.
A new way forward
Authors of pop-psychology books often talk about “acceptance”. Usually we think about this on the surface as “getting over it” or “being ok with it”. That is really not acceptance, that is just forcing yourself to be ok with it, and usually that results in unresolved grief. True acceptance involves integrating our loss by finding new meaning in our lives – even though we are now without the person we miss. Our sadness about them not being with becomes a small part of who we are, but doesn’t overtake us. There is truth to that and we feel it. With acceptance we we start to focus more upon celebrating that person. Enjoying that song they loved as if they are singing it right next to us. Making that special food and loving it as much as we know they would. Hugging those kids they way we know they would. In a way, they start to live through us. We carry on traditions and recite happy memories so that they are not really gone altogether. People live on with us through these traditions.
A practical way to approach missing the ones we love at the holidays is to create a new tradition. For many of my clients these new rituals or traditions have served to help them feel connected in a way that is joyous. Eat a certain cookie they loved after dinner. Watch a certain movie together. Play a game that you used to play. Plant a tree. Do an act of service in the community that commemorates them. Take a walk in a place or visit a special landmark that they loved to visit. Read a poem at dinner that they loved. Smoke a cigar or have a drink that they enjoyed. These rituals can be silly, somber, raucous or light hearted. They can be formal or spontaneous. Just don’t dwell on them all day long. It can be a part of your holiday, not all of it.
The Here and Now
Finally, we get through grief by living in the here and now. If you are sad and thinking about the past, then allow yourself to be sad. Then, refocus “what is happening today? Who am I with today?”. Focus on the people around you – or if you are alone, go spend time with other people. Do something meaningful or celebrate today. Do something to celebrate. Do something good for yourself. For for a run. Take care of an animal that you love. Cook or bake something special. Write a poem or paint a picture. Engage in conversations – don’t just talk about what you saw on netflix. Tell someone what you really think about something important. Ask a questions. Find out how someone really feels about something. Joke about something funny. Really interact. Push yourself to connect deeply with the people in your life that ARE HERE. They (or you!) might not be here next year, make the most of it. Enjoy! Celebrate. That is what the person you are missing would want you to do.