Grief at the Holidays

By: Elsa Lockman, MA, LMSW

Every Thanksgiving, as the temperature drops a devastating 15 degrees and stores are filled with holiday decorations, I miss my Father. It has been 10 years since his death and like clockwork - the radio begins to play Holiday music (ALL THE TIME) and memories of my Dad come flooding in. My heart aches with that familiar grief. I smile remembering his yearly battle with forcing the Christmas tree to stand straight in the stand. I remember his generosity at Christmas and his excitement for my Mom’s holiday baking extravaganza.

The holidays are a perfect reminder to practice more gratitude. I know I am absurdly lucky in many ways. Holidays are also a fantastic time to practice mindfulness and celebrating what is in front of us. But for me, a bitterness can creep my Father should be here playing with the grandkids he never met. He should be here arguing with me and laughing. I miss his affection and genuine interest to hear about the fantastic and difficult parts of my day. And he’s gone. And then I feel guilty because seemingly everyone is so very happy at this time.

This is grief. Everyone has a unique relationship with his/her loved one, and a unique story of his/her death. But there are commonalities in grief: States of shock, sadness, anger, regret, acceptance. Highlighted calendar days usually trigger emotions and memories; in particular, birthdays, anniversaries of the loved one’s death, and…the Holiday season. In our culture, the holidays are a time to be with loved ones and be joyous. Be grateful. It is a time of cheerful bustle, stress to fit in the perfect holiday. It is a time for rest and social events. This time of year then triggers one of the most shocking discovery in grief’s early stages: The world keeps turning. There is an entire population who does not miss your loved one. People go on.

We are inherently social creatures. We thrive on connecting with others and sharing common experiences. When our internal state does not seem to match those around us, we feel isolated. We wonder what is wrong with us. We feel adrift and unheard. After experiencing a loss, we have learned that for most people, grief and death are uncomfortable. There seems to be no room to bring up someone dearly missed. Perhaps the holidays can be an opportunity to honor grief together. Instead of feeling alone with grief, maybe we can push ourselves to create room for sharing memories. Being heard and that your emotions are valid communicates love to many people.

If you are grieving a loved one during the holidays, try to have grace with yourself. Validate your conflicting feelings. Do not apologize for your emotions. Incorporating a tradition that is special to your loved one can be a way of including them still. Or set a time during the bustle to reminisce with safe people. Saying a prayer or telling your loved one’s story can help you honor that person is missed. If you are trying to support someone who is experiencing grief, ask how they are doing. You are not going to plant the idea that the loved one is gone and should be missed. You are not going to ruin their holiday. Take the person’s lead. If they don’t want to talk about it, they will move on. If they do, just listen and offer what support you can. Your job is to not make the person forget or erase their grief.

For myself, I will walk alongside my brave clients as they experience their own holiday grief. I will check in with dear friends, who have lost loved ones. I will look for moments when I see my Dad in the faces of my kids. I will call my sister to hear her familiar, knowing voice. And I will try my best to (make my husband) make the Christmas tree straight.