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Grief: Navigating through the Holidays

By Erica Sonnabend

Here we are in the second week of December. Many of us have been raised with holiday traditions and the shared wonder that makes this the most magical time of the year. I’ve felt this way for much of my life. The promise of holiday gatherings, maybe a favorite gift under the tree, colorful outdoor lights, familiar smells and the generosity of spirit have almost always left me feeling hopeful and loved. I have been truly fortunate.

As I’ve grown older and experienced the death of loved ones, strained family relationships and a divorce, the magic of the holidays has been dulled by feelings of loss and disconnection. Although I have actively worked toward emotional healing from my losses (and still do daily), the onset of the holiday season can have me riding a rollercoaster of conflicting feelings.

All too often, I have pushed through this time of year, by throwing myself into the merriment and ever-growing list of holiday activities, festivals, and parties. Somehow, I figured that keeping up with the usual traditions was “the right thing” to do for the good of my family and friends. It seemed simpler to go along with the holiday status quo than to acknowledge my grief and change my plans. Simpler? For whom? Certainly not for me.

“Let your holiday grief be what it is. And let yourself – your new grieving self – be who you are.” - Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.

In early 2014, my life took another quick left-hand turn. I became the legal guardian of my one-year old niece that year. This baby girl was pure joy from the second she was born, but her sudden arrival in my daily life as a single mother already raising a high school aged daughter was challenging for me on many levels. At that time, I had comfortably settled into the phase of single-parenting I affectionately referred to as “not needing to be involved at every waking moment”. I had recently stepped into a space of freedom that I had never known, and had adapted rather well, so you can imagine the jolt to my system at age 41 (eeek!). It was a time of conflicting emotions for me and an enormous adjustment for my daughter. I was instantly spread very thin between two children who were fourteen years apart in age. I was searching for “all things baby” so I could set my niece up in my guest room with a crib, changing area, clothes and toys. I hadn’t had a car seat in my car in a decade. I was scrambling for scarce full-time daycare so I could go to work each day. My beloved (and well earned!) free time vanished before my eyes. With all this change came incredibly challenging times with my niece’s extended family.

Surprise! The unexpressed grief from my past loss experiences came roaring to the surface.

I did my best to survive and adjust to a new way of life that year. Tidbits of my feelings would come out, but I was quick to shut them down. I felt I didn’t have time to deal with them and maybe they would just go away. Surprise again. Nope. They didn’t go anywhere and by the time the holiday season came along, I didn’t have any more room to store my feelings. It was like my emotional dam broke sometime after Thanksgiving that year. For the first time in my life, I identified and openly shared my feelings of grief.

I needed to acknowledge that some of my loss experiences had changed me. (How could they not?) Pushing to resume the same traditions proved difficult because I wasn’t recognizing and releasing my own pain along the way. I wasn’t allowing myself to grow after my losses had changed so much in my life. Opening myself up emotionally allowed me to embrace new traditions and to set boundaries that support me through this time. Accepting that holidays may not always be joyous for me has helped me to reduce the stress and anticipation I used to feel. I decided to stop hiding my grief. I decided to stop pretending that I’m happy and ok when I know that I’m not. I am mindful that overplanning and committing to the same traditions can cause stress for me. I know that I need to remain flexible, yet still make a plan to celebrate in any way that I choose to.

The importance of following your heart has never seemed more essential than it has become in 2020. Our entire world is grieving for those we’ve lost this year, and everyone is experiencing vast changes of how we do just about everything – especially celebrating the holidays.

Seeing so many people wholeheartedly doing what brings them joy and peace this year has inspired me. Some are choosing to decorate much earlier and feel the peace that can come from twinkling lights and a much slower pace to the season. Many are planning alternative and safe ways to connect to their family and friends. (Hooray for Zoom!)

I know that there are many others who are experiencing the raw emotions of grief and opting to take this time to seek support and care for their broken hearts without the usual expectations or larger holiday plans weighing on them. For anyone who is in this place in their grief journey, I hope that you allow yourself to express your emotions and mark these days in ways that restore and comfort you. You are allowed to cry. You are allowed to laugh. You are allowed to do both at the same time (I know I have).

Navigating grief through the holidays is not easy. Some years seem simpler than others. I have no idea why that is. My story will always be my story and I will always miss my loved ones

who are not at my holiday table. Losing them will forever be a source of great sadness for me.

By holding space for my grief and honoring my own needs, I have been able to discover my personal route through each holiday season.

My sincere wish for all of you is that you compassionately navigate your own route through the holidays and that the magic of the season makes its way to you.

Be well, friends.

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