Grieving During the Holidays

If you’ve experienced loss, the holidays can be a minefield of emotions. For our family, at least, grief makes it a tricky season. Every year Thanksgiving means we are circling back around to the anniversary of my husband’s dad passing away. Christmas Day marks the last time I saw my half-brother Jon before Cystic Fibrosis took him from our family in 2005. On top of that, this year we each lost our last living grandparent, so Thanksgiving and Christmas feel irreparably changed without their presence.

As we lit the candle of hope on the first Sunday of Advent, hope seemed especially needed amid a season marked by death and loss. 

Advent Hope Candle

But sometimes hope isn’t easy to find when you are grieving. I think I’ve watched my family run the full gamut of emotions. There have been years that feel like we are just going through the motions of Christmas. Do we really have to decorate? There have been years I’ve watched my husband “suck it up” through seasonal depression for the sake of the kids. Other years the holiday season does feel truly joyful. On those years that bittersweet always-there thought lingers just under the surface of all the happiness: I only wish ____ could have seen this. 

I’ve come to understand that grief is a lifelong journey.

There’s not really a “getting over it.” While it’s true that time makes grief easier to navigate, it’s also true that on some days, something as small as a photograph can reopen all of the old wounds you thought had healed. The pain of loss can resurface anytime as fresh as if it happened last week. Just today Facebook reminded me that exactly four years ago my grandfather was alive, smiling, and holding my daughter in his lap. I would give anything to be taking them to visit him again this year.

What is it about the holidays that seems to both mark the passage of time and hold the promise of the future at the same time?

As I look at that photo, I know I want my daughters to experience the joy of a white Christmas at my grandfather’s mountain cabin. I want them to grow up hearing the stories of the ones we have loved and lost — the ones they will remember and the ones they didn’t get to meet. I want to carry on our loved one’s traditions, bake their recipes, pass down their love, and make new memories in their honor.

The hardest part for me is feeling like the Holidays will never be the same.

I mean, it’s true. But as things change, we have found ways to include the loved ones we are missing in our holiday traditions. We light candles in their honor and lay flowers at their graves. My husband’s family buys Christmas gifts for a family in need each year in their dad’s honor. I register to walk for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in honor of my brother. Giving back to the world in tangible ways makes grief at least feel purposeful.

Gathering around a table and sharing old memories has gotten easier, and just being together somehow makes the burden feel lighter. 

There is safety knowing that around your people you are not under pressure to feel any particular way. This year, on the ten year anniversary of my father-in-law’s death, we gathered with my husband’s family at one of his dad’s favorite BBQ restaurants. Since I never met his dad I still feel like an outsider looking in, but I couldn’t help thinking how proud he surely would have been of his five kids and their families, and how they remain close and hold each other up this way.

If you are walking through grief this year at the Holidays, surround yourself with a lot of grace.

Ask for what you need. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know,” may seem flippant or trite coming from well meaning friends, but it may actually be a heartfelt offer to help make your burden lighter from someone who just can’t read your mind. Find ways to express your grief and honor the memory of the ones you have lost. Keep old traditions. Make new traditions.

Most of all, know there is hope. It may seem hard to find in the face of grief, but I believe it is where healing begins.

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