As we are in the midst of our busy holiday season, I have been thinking a lot about the holidays and special days and how these times are for those who are grieving and in pain. Often during the holidays, this is a time in our culture where others recognize that this is a difficult time for those who are grieving and in pain. Perhaps that recognition comes from that the holiday season is seen in our culture as a time that we spend with our loved ones.
When you think about the holiday season, then what thoughts and images come to mind? Many of us can think back to special times that we spent with our family and friends. Some of us have special traditions that we shared with those that have died. Sometimes what happens as we are in the holiday season and are grieving, then we may feel the loss more deeply in some of those moments as our loved ones are not there to participate in those traditions that we used to share with them. For some, watching others who are having joy with their complete family brings deep pain as they reflect on their own missing family members.
Holidays are times when we spend time with our loved ones. This has been taught to us from an early age. For some people, the holiday season is one of the most difficult parts of their grief journey. When someone dies that has meant so much to us and has been such an integral part of our lives, then we don’t necessarily feel like celebrating or participating in the typical holiday traditions. We might feel like we are in even more pain than we had been before the holidays, and we also may feel even more lonely. Sometimes holiday parties, Christmas music, and our traditions that are truly meant to bring joy actually powerfully remind us of the pain of our loss and of all of the moments that we previously shared with our loved one who has died. My husband died in a work related accident in August 2011, and my only son was instantly killed in a car accident at the age of 18 in June 2013. My two daughters and I continue to work on our healing and restoring hope for our futures. We also have chosen to be very determined to continue our traditions and to even create some new ones.
When people are grieving they sometimes feel like they don’t have the energy to do the normal tasks of their day to day life. I remember after my son died how exhausted I felt every day, and I did not understand it as usually I am a person who has a lot of energy. I felt exhausted even when I was just doing my normal tasks. I remember discussing it with my sister Kim the psychologist, and she shared with me that she had studied that because of the pain and trauma that had occurred that it was taking a lot of my emotional energy to just make it through my day to day tasks and that this was normal. Around the holiday season, then this appears to occur for many people who are grieving. When some people are feeling tremendous pain and grief, then they don’t feel like they have the energy or the strength to complete their cooking, shopping, or decorating. They also don’t necessarily feel like they have the energy to even be around others. Sometimes they just have no desire to celebrate because of how sad, lonely, and overwhelmed that they may be feeling. If this is a struggle that you are currently having, then please know that it is good for you to allow yourself to experience what you are feeling even when it is painful. If you are struggling with these feelings then please give yourself permission to be real as always… if you need to cry then cry, if you want to laugh then laugh, if you need some space then find some. Just please take good care of all aspects of yourself.
A dear lady that I know from church shared with others that she was having a hard time putting up her Christmas tree. She said that she had tried three times in a week but the reason that she was struggling in it was that it made her miss her dad so much. Her dad loved Christmas, and she shared that even though it had been 15 years since her dad had died then it still felt like it was this morning. I am always curious and interested in how others respond to something like this in our culture. These were some of the responses that she received: “I can so identify,” “Be strong,” “Cheer up! He is celebrating in heaven and wants to see you celebrate,” “It’s all good,” “It’s hard during the holidays thinking of our loved ones who are not with us this time of year,” “He would want you to be happy,” and etc.
It is always interesting to reflect on what was this lady sharing and seeking and what was she receiving from others. My opinion is that she was sharing the pain of not having her dad with her in this happy season that she loved to share with him while he was alive. My guess is that she was seeking acknowledgement of her pain; for example, “I know that you are hurting and miss your dad.” I am speculating that she was also seeking comfort. When someone is hurting whether it is from grief and loss or from other pain then often their desire is that we acknowledge their pain and be there for them. Often, when people are grieving they are told things like, “Be strong. Cheer Up. It’s all good. He would want you to be happy.” Often, the message that they receive from those sayings is that whoever is saying those things to them is uncomfortable with them sharing their hurt and is either trying to fix them or shift them away from being able to share their pain. When people are grieving and in pain then it is a priceless gift for them to have others who are able to be there for them, to acknowledge their pain, and to give them opportunities to express it.
For many families, the holidays are full of traditions and time spent with their families and friends. People who are grieving handle their grief in many different ways during these times, and I personally do not believe that there is a right or a wrong way to handle our grief and pain. When my husband died in August 2011 from a work related accident, then suddenly my three children ages 16, 14, and 11 were without a father. I was determined in my grief and theirs that we would continue our family traditions. When my only son was instantly killed in a car accident at the age of 18 in June 2013, then the devastation and loss that I felt is difficult to express in words because it has been a pain and a loss that I find a hard time describing. As I have shared before, one of my determinations every day is to look into the eyes of my two incredible daughters who have been through so much loss and pain at such young ages, and to remind myself that they deserve my best just as much as my son did. I am determined to give it to them in every season.
I have wanted to somehow help my daughters to still find joy and thankfulness in holidays and special days despite our loss and pain. We have kept our Christmas traditions. Some feel like they are pulling my heart out again and again. Every year when I hang the wonderful stockings by the fireplace that my mom so lovingly made for us, then my heart is so sad that I have two less to hang by our three. However, in my pain and hurt, I remind myself of what I still desire for my daughters. I want my daughters to still be able to look back and know that we did keep celebrating and finding joy and gratitude. This is truly one of the greatest priorities in my life and a driving force in me that strengthens me with fierce determination.
This weekend we are doing our annual cookie bake. Each year for many years, the kids and I would take a weekend and bake many, many cookies, and then we take trays of cookies and give them away to some of our family and friends that live nearby. We find much joy in the weekend together baking, and I would say that we find even more joy in our delivery time where we drive around and try to bring a little joy and gratitude to some of those who are such blessings in our lives. We try to also find those who are in need and see if there are ways that we can provide a little help to them. I am very thankful for my daughter’s high school and how different groups that she is involved with identify those in need and give us opportunities to help them. These are important lessons for us to practice all year long as I hope that my two daughters will be women that are giving and helpful to those in need. My hope for them is that they are able to continue to heal inwardly from the tremendous pain that they have experienced in their own lives while simultaneously maintaining an outward focus and a desire to help those in need.
The holidays and special days are challenging for those who are grieving. As we focus on the holidays, then the pain of the loss of those who have died continues to be a part of our journey.
It is good to have a plan to prepare for what may be painful and to have extra support that may help you endure those difficult times if you are grieving. Everyone has to figure out what they want, what they can handle, and what is important for them. Try to avoid isolating yourself if possible so that you do not feel even more loneliness; however, it may help you to give yourself some time where you can reflect, remember, and grieve.
Such an important part of grieving is to remember that we all have different needs and that there is not a right or wrong way to grieve. As we have discussed before, let yourself be real. When you need to cry then give yourself permission. When you are having moments of laughter then remind yourself that your loved one who has died loved watching you experience joy.
Some people who are grieving create new traditions. Some people focus on doing something kind for others. For some people, it is sharing stories of the memories and times with those we have lost that may bring some comfort to those who are hurting. If you are grieving and in pain, then please find what helps you whether it is exercising or writing or taking a long relaxing bath. I am finding much comfort in sharing my heart and thoughts in this blog. The girls and I tell lots of stories about their dad and my son. We love hearing stories from other family members or friends as well. Sometimes we need a little mental escape so we might enjoy a show or a movie to focus on someone else’s story for a brief time. The important thing is to find out what helps you individually as we are all different.
Give yourself permission to be real. Figure out what is important to you. Friends and family will want to help you through the holidays but also will probably feel unsure of how to so feel free to let them know what will help you… if you know. Take care of yourself. The girls and I truly hope that each one of you will be able to still find joy, hope, and love in this beautiful Thanksgiving and Christmas season. We pray for each of you that you will find healing, peace, joy, and hope.
As always, our goal is to honor and remember our loved ones. We pray that you will be able to do the same.