Last year, the holidays were especially rough for my family. There had simply been too much loss in our lives. Regretfully, 2019 would bring the passing of my very dear friend. Even our good old dog died two months ago. (I tell you, at times I have felt cursed.)
Sadly, loss in many forms is part of life for all of us and it can be especially painful during the holiday season. With this awareness in mind, I hope re-running the column I wrote about navigating this difficult time of year might bring some of you a bit of comfort. Here it is:
Around this time of year, I often receive letters and emails from people who are struggling from the loss of a loved one. They describe feeling low and isolated, recounting how difficult it is for them to get into the spirit of the holiday season. They can’t begin to feel thankful, given the heaviness in their hearts. Some write their grief only gets worse in anticipation of Christmas and Hanukkah.
This year, I could easily relate to these sentiments after losing my 16-year-old nephew to suicide in January and four beloved family members, including my mother, in May.
I approached Thanksgiving with an open mind, grateful to spend the week with our son and his dear partner. It turned out to be a lovely five-day visit, full of laughter, cooking and lots of hugs. Throughout our visit, my son and I recounted stories about my mother, his beloved “Grandma Jam,” as well as all of the other relatives who weren’t with us any longer.
Dinner itself was so uplifting! With tables stretched end-to-end, 14 of their best friends and the other pair of lucky parents, all came together. There was plenty of gratitude all around.
Going to sleep that night I felt some relief for having made it through my first Thanksgiving without some of the people I loved most in the world.
The long drive home gave me plenty of time to think about Christmas and all that I wanted to do, beginning with getting the tree. I knew this might be a sad year for our family, but I was determined to fill our home with a festive spirit.
The day after our return we had a tree to decorate. My husband built a fire while I put on the holiday CDs. Up the ladder he went to the attic and down came the boxes full of decorations and ornaments. I was excited. It was finally one of my most favorite times of the year. We threw ourselves into the well-practiced routine … only to be completely blindsided by our year of losses.
Every decoration I pulled out sparked emotional meaning and memories, from the annual ornaments my sister-in-law would always send our children to the odd Christmas characters my Mom loved to send. (There’s the dancing cowboy Santa or perhaps the family favorite? The two-foot-tall bear decked out in a red stocking cap and mittens whose eyes follow you through the room like some furry Mona Lisa. We’ve all decided he’s actually kind of creepy but hey, he came from Grandma!)
It seemed as though with each thing we pulled from the boxes, one of us would tear up, sometimes becoming overcome with grief. I suppose we could have taken a break and gathered our wits about us, but that didn’t occur to either one of us. Instead, decorating our home, sharing our memories and tears with each other and missing people we loved so dearly felt like the right thing to do.
Later that night, I gently kicked myself. Sure, I’d had an inkling it would be rough. It was the parade of sucker punches I hadn’t anticipated! What kind of advice columnist was I anyhow?
I answered my own question. I was a human columnist, one who had probably been protecting herself by not fully acknowledging the full scope of pain in advance. We’ve had so much grief this year, why entertain even a smidgen more? I think at some level I was on auto pilot, sadly hoping we could somehow cruise through the inevitable, heartbreaking sadness that is grief.
But this morning I woke up and decided that, as your advice columnist, I’d share my story in the hopes that if you are grieving, you won’t be blindsided like we were. Seek support for those times in the season that may be difficult. If you can’t bear to hear certain songs, it’s OK to turn them off. Perhaps small changes in celebrations feel easier? Ask your friends and family members to make them. Does the thought of participating in certain customs or rituals overwhelm you? Give yourself permission to skip them. In other words, be kind to yourself and please, do as I say … not as I did!
And just to reassure you that, yes, we do move through grief. Today, when I looked at those same ornaments and that silly bear, all I felt was a certain sweetness for the lovely people who thoughtfully made our Christmas celebrations so special throughout the years.
Tracey Barnes Priestley is a life coach with a master’s degree in community counseling psychology and more than 30 years of experience as a counselor, educator and consultant. She is married and the mother of three adult children, and the author of “Duck Pond Epiphany.” Visit her website, www.thesecondhalfonline.com; email her at: email@example.com; or send your letters to 665 F St., Arcata, CA, 95521. Tracey regrets she cannot answer all letters and emails.