Practices For Embracing Grief During The Holidays
When It’s Not The Most Wonderful Time Of Year
I was four years old when my grandfather passed away. It was Christmas day, and a thin blanket of snow had covered our sleepy lake town in Northern California. While my paternal grandparents rocked my infant sister by the tree, I sat with my parents in their bedroom. Taking my tiny hands in theirs, they explained to me that Grandpa—my mom’s dad—was no longer with us. He’d fallen unexpectedly sick earlier in the week and was taken off life support on Christmas morning.
My family had to learn how to navigate the holidays while holding joy and sorrow in the same hand. Though my sister and I were too young to understand the implications of grief, my parents had to play a balancing act; my mom, especially.
I still remember all the Christmas seasons of my childhood—the holiday parades, the trips to the mall to see Santa, the chopping down of the tree that was always too big but Dad called ‘just perfect!’ Vivid still are the images of unwrapping presents to the tune of Nat King Cole while the video camera rolled and Mom handed out plates of warm cinnamon rolls.
While I couldn’t have seen the pain my parents felt then, I now understand the conflicting emotions they experienced as the holidays approached each year. Though the season offered immense joy and even moments of magic, it was also a reminder of profound grief, and of a loved one’s absence. It still is.
The commercials and movies tell us that the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year. But what if they don’t feel that way? Perhaps, right now, you’re grieving an immediate loss—so many of us have lost loved ones in 2020. Or maybe you’re mourning for someone who passed years ago. No matter how long it’s been, losing someone is devastating, and it can be especially heartbreaking during the holidays. Though time passes and the initial shock and pain lessens, the void remains. The holidays seem to emphasize this loss.
In 2020, we’ve learned that grief is widespread and collective, shared among communities, and felt around the world. Even before this year, so many of us approached December with held breath, knowing that in allowing ourselves to feel joy we would also feel heartache. Comfort comes in knowing that we are not alone. It may not lessen the grief, but it helps to know that it is shared.
Death isn’t the only way we lose people, either. Grief is complex, and loss can be felt from all sorts of absence, including estranged relationships. However you are experiencing grief this holiday season—whether from losing loved ones, from the loss of a job, or simply because 2020 has been heavy in so many ways—please know that you are not alone. Here are a few gentle reminders to help us navigate the holiday season.
Be Honest & Allow Yourself to Grieve
Begin by being honest with yourself about the feelings you’re experiencing. This is especially important if the loss is recent and this is your first holiday season without your loved one. Take due diligence with self-care and be kind to your body and spirit, allowing yourself to feel everything you need to feel. Grieving makes us human. It means we loved deeply and cared for someone. In mourning our loss, even many years later, we are acknowledging the impact this person had on us.
Try not to place parameters around your emotions, either. Brené Brown calls this ‘should-ing’ on yourself. Forget unrealistic expectations, and practice saying no. Don’t feel obligated to participate in festivities and traditions, and be vulnerable and honest about where you’re at—both with your close community and with yourself.
Celebrate Your Loved One with Your Community
Because I was young when my grandfather passed (some of my siblings weren’t yet alive), it’s important we hear stories about his life and give space for my mother to share his legacy.
My partner and I have lost relatives and friends throughout the years, so to celebrate those who are no longer with us, we take moments throughout the season to share memories or look through photos. This is a meaningful way for us to grieve, remember, and honor the people who’ve impacted us. It also allows us to connect with our close community and keep alive the stories of those we’ve lost.
For some of you, honoring your loved ones in the company of others will be too painful; you may feel more comfortable and safe by taking a few moments to commemorate the one you’ve lost in private. This is an equally meaningful and beautiful act.
Finally, celebrating your loved ones doesn’t have to be confined to the holidays, either. Depending on your specific traditions and how you partake in this season, you can create your own rituals and sacred moments.
Give Back in Your Loved One’s Name
Another meaningful way to honor your loved one’s life during the holidays is by donating to a charitable cause and giving back in their name. In 2020, there are so many ways to support others. If means allow, consider organizations like The World Health Organization (WHO) as they continue to coordinate the global effort in fighting the pandemic and No Kid Hungry in their efforts to stop global hunger. You can also give back to a local business in your loved one’s city (restaurants and small shops can use all the support).
If you lost a grandparent who was living in a retirement community, consider contacting the home to see how you can safely support care workers during this time. Perhaps you can send letters to your grandparent’s nurses and friends.
If you’ve lost someone to addiction or substance abuse, consider donating to a local or nationwide nonprofit or a rehabilitation and recovery center. And for those suffering from mental illnesses, consider Mental Health America or one of the local affiliates.
A Message for Those of Us Not Grieving
I didn’t understand the weight of my mother’s grief until I was older and had experienced other losses. Even still, I still have my father, so I can’t fully know the depths of her pain.
We don’t often understand the grief of another person. Even if we have lost someone we love, experiences and emotional processes are unique to each individual. This can feel frustrating. I want to be a safe space for my family and friends who are hurting; I want to know which questions to ask (or not ask); and I want to hold space for mourning, especially during the holidays.
While being kind to those who are grieving is obvious, we also need to allow ourselves grace in the journey of caring for them. Being a pillar for someone in loss requires self-care and self-kindness.
Remember, there is no time limit to grief. Many people will feel the loss for the rest of their lives, and it is essential to remind our loved ones that they are not expected to move on or get over their loss. Even after almost 30 years, my mom says that she never knows when something will trigger a flashback or a memory. “I’ve learned that it’s not if it will happen, but when, and I have accepted that,” she shares.
For everyone grieving this holiday season, you are not alone. We extend our love to you, even from afar.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.