Holiday Grief

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year! With marshmallows roasting and…”

Except when it isn’t.

Grief at the holidays is 1) normal, 2) inevitable the older you get and 3) more intense than any other time of the year. It is an unexpected, yet regular, extra guest at every dinner table.

From the time we are young, regardless of our socioeconomic status we are conditioned that the holidays are made for family. That there is ‘specialness’ in the air. That there is magic in the air. The expectation is that we gather from far and near to join family in a heartfelt exchange of gifts and celebration.

In reality, that may not be our story. It may be that our parents had to choose between the food on the table and buying presents. That our family was fragmented by conflict. Or that some tragedy befell the family.

Thanksgiving morning, 1971, my mother and my aunt went off to visit my grandmother in the hospital. On their way there, a drunk driver crossed the meridian and hit them head on. My beloved aunt was thrown threw the windshield, never regained consciousness and died three days later. My mother was held in the car by the steering wheel but hit her head on the windshield. She suffered a closed head injury and had permanent personality changes as a result.

For years and years Thanksgiving carried that shadow. My mother had survivor’s guilt on top of the brain injury. While we missed Aunt Agnes very much the whole year, that day was different each year.

A few years later their brother, a missionary Redemptorist priest, home from the Amazon, died in his sleep on New Year’s in our home.

My mother died 13 years ago this December 13.

My mother was Christmas for our family. She was that mom that shopped all year to find the perfect gifts, put the Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving and had decorations in every single room of the house – including the bathrooms.

That first Christmas without her we were still in shock because she died just 11 days before. No one felt like doing anything, much less celebrating. A year, later we all felt like it was the first Christmas without her because the actual first one seemed non-existent.

But it doesn’t matter when in the year someone dies, the holidays always bring your attention to their missing presence. The hole in your life where they used to be is highlighted at the holidays, because we are so focused on being together for the holidays that their absence is magnified. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been gone either; that grief will find you.

It might be while shopping and you come across that perfect gift they would’ve loved. Or a reminder of a special tradition the two of you shared. Or their place at the dinner table.

With each holiday that passes, their absence in your life seems more, not less. It seems to serve as a place card – before they died and after they died. While we may have new and wonderful people in our lives since our loved one transitioned, there is still that empty space where they used to sit.

The holidays highlight our losses because they highlight love – both the presence of it and the absence of it. If your family is not picture perfect, then you experience the grief over the loss of illusion every year. And after a death you have the grief over the loss of the possibilities of reconciliation. If your family is picture perfect (or as close to it as you can get) then you have the loss of the special energy that loved one brought with them.

Yes, we believe that love lives on. That our loved ones are around us everyday. That they never really leave us. But that doesn’t soothe the ache to feel their physical arms holding us once again. It doesn’t satisfy the need to hear their voice one more time. It does not stop us from missing their physical presence.

Be kind to yourself in your holiday grief. Do not put on bold false faces. Allow yourself time to mourn. Don’t judge yourself thinking you should be over it – no matter how many years have passed. Our lives are a collage of memories that do not die when a loved one does.

It is ok to remember and be sad. It is not ok to deny those feelings or hide them away. It is not ok to pretend to be happy when you are grieving. Find a way to tap into their energy, because it is all around you. They have never left, but their form has indeed changed.

  • Create a remembrance tradition to replace some of the traditions you once shared.
  • Light a special candle each year to symbolize the light they brought to this life on Earth.
  • Take a walk under the stars to symbolize your journey with them in life.

Find a way to channel your grief into honoring their memory. It is a gift you will give to both of you.

I love you. And they continue to love you. Blessed holidays to you all.


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