I love Christmas. I love the lights, the trees, the food, the decorations at the mall, the smells, the seasonal soaps at Bath and Body Works, shopping for gifts, cursing overcrowded parking lots—I love it all.
I am the reason stores put out Christmas stuff in July. Every room in my house has been visually assaulted by a formidable collection of paraphernalia that spans decades. I crave the joy of the holiday season like hot craves chocolate.
But as much as I love Christmas, I can’t say they’ve all been great, or even good. Some have been very sad, and very dark. During those seasons I was not anxiously anticipating the joy of the holidays. I was dreading it. Every twinkling light, every song of hope, every invigorating smell of peppermint or pine was a bitter, stabbing reminder of the pain I felt; the sorrow of my circumstances, and bleakness of the future.
C.S. Lewis likened grief to fear. Grief is very much like a fear; specifically our fear of the unknown. How will I cope? When will the pain end? How can I parent and grieve at the same time? How will I do everything I need to do when I am so sad? When will I feel normal again?
Last Christmas, I asked all these questions many, many times over, sometimes through desperate, angry tears. It was the first Christmas since my brother had taken his life, my husband was deployed for a year to Afghanistan, and I had three young kids, and a newborn. I was in a tough spot and I wasn’t managing it with my usual emotional agility. I was sad at my circumstance and I was angry because I wasn’t handling it better.
I remember thinking, “I am really (bleep) miserable, and I don’t know how to fix it.” This frustrated me for two reasons. First, I am uncomfortable with discomfort. I don’t like being in distress and have essentially designed my entire life and relationships around avoiding it. Second, as someone studying to be a marriage and family therapist, I should know better, right? I should know how to stop feeling miserable and just be happy.
I asked my therapist around that same time, “I know how I want to feel, why can’t I just do it?!” She gently reminded me, “If it were that easy people wouldn’t need therapy.” She’s right—it’s not that easy, but there are some things we can do to help ourselves get through the season, especially when we don’t feel all that merry or joyful.
I want to share some encouragement that helped me understand and cope with my distress and grief. This isn’t going to be a bunch of advice. People in grief don’t need more advice. It’s not that advice isn’t good, or given with the best of intentions. Rather, advice risks being a “one-size-fits-all” rejoinder for something that is unique to each person. Instead, these are just some things to consider as you experience the holiday season.
Give Yourself Permission
Giving yourself permission to feel is exactly what it sounds like. It means allowing yourself to feel whatever emotion emerges, whenever it emerges, without judgment or shame. When your inner monologue is telling you, “You should be over this by now,” or “You shouldn’t be sad in front of your children,” or even, “You should feel more sad about what’s happened,” that’s judgment.
In therapy there’s a saying, “Don’t should all over yourself,” and it’s said often because we tend to do it a lot. More than that, though, it reminds us that we don’t want to judge emotions. Emotions happen. Often we know why they’re there, but sometimes they just show up unannounced and surprise us.
Avoid judging the feelings, and give yourself space to feel without the should. If you don’t feel like going full-steam with the decorations this year because you feel miserable, give yourself permission to feel miserable without shame or judgment, and should doesn’t get a vote in the matter.
This doesn’t just apply to painful feelings, but to happy or funny feelings, as well. Sometimes when we’re grieving, we may have a moment of levity, a funny thing happens and we smile or laugh. Let the joy and laughter happen! Don’t chide yourself for feeling happy in your sadness. Accept the blessing for what it is—a moment of joy—and a much-needed break from the pain of your grief.
Accept Your Thoughts and Feelings
When I was first told to learn to “accept” my pain as a way of living with distress, I thought it was a terrible idea. I didn’t want to be sad, and accepting my sorrow felt a lot like “Learn to like your circumstances.” Well, I didn’t want to like my crappy circumstances, and I wasn’t going to just accept the suck.
Fortunately, that’s not what acceptance means. The concept originates from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (pronounced “act”) therapeutic model. In its most basic form, it is the acceptance and validation of our feeling as a real and legitimate.
For me, this meant I had to stop critiquing the legitimacy of what I was feeling, and just accept that at that moment, while Christmas shopping with a newborn, I really resented my husband for not being here; even though I knew intellectually it wasn’t his fault, or his choice. It wasn’t until I stopped fighting what I felt that I finally got out of the infuriating cycle of trying to rationalize away very powerful emotions.
This is why I think accepting our feelings without criticism can be such a valuable tool for us. It puts us in a right relationship with reality. The reality is the feeling exists, it’s there, and trying to do anything other than accepting it’s a real and legitimate feeling, risks adding unnecessary conflict on top of an already vulnerable and raw state of mind.
I want to stress that acceptance does not mean we have to agree with or like our feelings, it just means acknowledging them as legitimate, as they are, without critiquing their validity.
Give Yourself Grace
Finally, I want to address the misguided notion that our grief should follow an expected path from one stage to another, and once you get through all the stages you’re magically better. That is pure codswallop. Give yourself a ton of grace this season, and for the rest of your life, really, and don’t care what anyone else thinks about how you’re handling your pain.
Last Christmas, I remember feeling like such a buzz kill because my life was so sad, nothing had changed, and I was still everyone’s unfortunate friend, like Eeyore. Even though I knew I had many blessings to count, and I did count them, I still worried that all everyone else saw was a sad mother of four whose husband was at war and whose brother had hung himself.
But it really didn’t matter what other people thought. I was the one living my life, not them. The truth is, most people aren’t thinking ill of us at all. They really do care, and want to help. So don’t feel rushed to hurry up and get better because Kubler-Ross’ model for grief says you should be done with “anger” by now.
We don’t follow a neat step-by-step path until one day we arrive at acceptance, and can finally say we’ve moved on. Anyone who’s ever grieved will tell you that. Marilyn McCabe, in her book, “The Paradox of Loss,” takes the view that grief is a combination of stages and processes and is unique to each mourner. She says that while grief undergoes changes over our lifetime that doesn’t mean we won’t relive parts of it years, even decades later.
This is because when we lose someone, we don’t really lose them. We still live with them in thought, in habit, in shared experiences, in beliefs, with all of our senses; they are still with us in every way except physically. I love McCabe’s view because it doesn’t reduce our pain to a neat and tidy formula. Rather it blows it up, making space for us to experience grief in our own personal way.
So if you’re grieving this season, first I want to say I’m truly sorry for what you’re going through, whatever that may be, and I pray you are able to be open to feel and experience what this season of hope has for you. Whether it’s the bittersweet joy of remembering, or a desperately needed break just to laugh with your child, take it, enjoy it, and feel it.