Anyone who has lost someone they love knows that grief is a constant pressure, always there exerting itself in myriad ways. We do not get over it and there is no other side. We hold on to our memories, to all the pain and the feelings of loss. Though grief follows no logic and knows no season or schedule, it is during the holidays, when we are surrounded by tradition, gathering with family, eating wonderful food and sharing gifts, that grief can be the most difficult to cope with.
In my house, our meals were always the same, the traditions passed on for generations. But now there is an empty seat, where my son Jack, who fell victim to a rising addiction epidemic in this country, used to sit. Bereaved families like mine are often told, that we need to “move on” and “continue living life.” Maybe that’s true but it will never change the fact that my son Jack is not in his chair.
So, when it came to the holiday season, I realized that if the holidays were not going to change my grief then I had to change those long-standing holiday traditions. I had to find new ways of coping at a time where, once, we celebrated. Like every aspect of grieving, it is a ceaseless journey. In my case, I’ve come to believe that sharing my own journey may help others grieving, holding them up through the points of sharpest pain, like the holidays.
The truth I have come to accept about grief is that the holidays are actually not much different than any other day or any other week. That rhythm of anniversaries and birthdays, of new births and graduations, of celebrating success and indulging simple pleasures is now carried out without those we have lost. Most people living with grief are intimately acquainted with the process and with those small things that might help ease the moment. Whether it’s a regular weekday or the height of the holiday season, we do what we know we can do.
My most dedicated practice is crying. I cry all the time. It is a way to let the energy move through me. And on the holidays, the same is true. I do not feel guilty for the tears at a time of celebration and joy. I do not feel embarrassed or ashamed. I cry because I have to. And that is okay.
I also keep my time for my memories, to experience, in the only way I can, what once was. Holiday or not, when I wake up each morning I stay in bed with a cup of coffee and think about those times. Every day, I give myself this time, waking up two hours before I have to enter my daily routine, so I can write in my journal about what I’m grateful for, list what I call my “celebrations,” the little things I am able to do in spite of the grief, and (of course) I cry.
For me, these “celebrations” might be as simple as putting on lipstick. For others, it could be reaching out to a friend or looking at something beautiful, or maybe just breathing. What is important is to celebrate these small accomplishments, these miniature triumphs of overcoming, and not give up on that process, hard as it may be. As the years pass, I have seen from my “celebration list” that I am doing more and more—I’m joining a class, going to work, breathing.
But the real point is whatever gets you to the next breath is what you need to do. Whatever gives you a second of relief, do that. If trapped emotions get stuck we will get sick. My teacher says, “If we are not at ease, we are in dis-ease” Disease. This stagnant emotion can cause physical and/or emotional damage. Then what good are we? If nothing else, cry. I am certain there is a reservoir of tears to draw from.
Here are the choices. We breathe and live, or don’t and die. Grief is different for everyone. I’ve painted, written, practiced yoga, meditated and planned new traditions. I’ve mucked stalls, walked in nature, talked with friends, attended workshops, used healing energy like Reiki and reflexology. I try anything that helps me arrive at the next moment. Some people I know collage, others use photography, cooking, volunteering, or finding ways to connect back to themselves. Taking baby steps, one after the other, is what keeps us moving through a time like the holidays, without sinking into the darker parts of our grief.
If you are feeling this way, I am sorry. I do know how much grief hurts. I hope this simple act of well-wishing which I offer will take you to the next breath. I wish you peace this holiday season.