Yesterday, while I was reading something sappy that a Facebook link drove me to, I found myself balling like a baby for a while. I had to stand up, walk around and shake it off before I could go sit back down again. These crying fits have been much more frequent since the middle of October which is around the time that they usually start. For the last couple of years of my life, battling grief during the holidays has been challenging. There has been this impending holiday downward spiral that I find myself standing atop of. It’s high up and cold and dark and desolate and lonely and lonely and lonely up there. If I’m not careful, I will find myself hurling at lightening speed towards the bottom of the blackest of black grief pits. In this pit, I’m ceaselessly smothered by grief-induced depression which manifests itself as the inability to care or almost feel, as the desire to not leave the bed, answer my phone or even comb my hair. Nothing else in life matters. Only that I am sad and reliving my grief even though I don’t want to be.
I don’t talk about my grief to most people. Even in my family, there are those (read: so many) who don’t “get it” and don’t understand the nuances of depression. In their rushed advice, it’s usually to just pray it away. Honestly, I’m all for prayer but I also realize that in my case as a believer of God, that prayer is also a physical manifestation of actions. For me, it’s become prayer plus actions. This year I finally had the strength to act on the decision to be more active in dealing with my grief. I have not celebrated the holidays in two years and this year I wanted to give it a go. Baby steps, I told my husband. No gifts, no big deal on Christmas day. I only wanted to try to get a tree this year so this past weekend when I stood in the middle of a Christmas tree lot and didn’t break down in a hysterical fit we came home with a tree. That tree, six days later, is still sitting in the living room bare. Baby steps. We’re going to try to decorate it tonight. If we don’t complete the tree, and it ends up looking more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas or not decorated at all, I will still have succeeded in working towards moving forward.
Battling grief during the holidays after the death of someone you love dearly is not an easy task for many. And I’m here to testify that it often does not get any easier as the years go on. In my case, my grief is stacked. It’s so heavy that going into the details of it now would mean I couldn’t finish writing this, but I’ll say that for a long time I thought God was punishing me; that God for some reason kept a shit list and that I was somehow on his shit list. I’ve come to realize in the clarity of mind outside of my grief and depression that’s just not the case. It still does not make it any easier at times and I’ve come to terms with that as well. Losing someone you love and not having them there is a reminder during the holidays that they are gone and never coming back and is akin to burying them over and over. Grief is not two weeks off from work or a few sad days, it’s something you learn to live and go on with. Whenever someone says to me, “How have you made it so far? I would have curled up and died,” I still sometimes wonder how I’m able to go on. I wonder how exactly is it that I’m here. But I am here. My heart beats and I breathe and I go out into the world and work at living my life every single day.
Grief does not have to break me and when it shows up, I can ride this bull until he’s worn out and goes back to his cage whimpering. I may fall off and I may get bruised on the ride, but I’m not going to be defeated. The holidays are the absolute worst time of the year for me and though I can’t promise you that the things I do will work for you because we are all different, I hope they help you in your grief.
DON’T PUT PRESSURE ON YOURSELF
Our society has bought into the holidays hook line and sinker. So much so that the idea of not celebrating a certain holiday for whatever reason makes some people side eye you. You have to block them out. You are not yourself and that’s okay. You are a different person after loss. I am still Angel, but I’m also Angel without a handful of immediate family members in my life. It’s a lot. It’s like someone cut off half of my body and no one would expect me to be the same if that were a reality. Ask people to try to understand that you need time and space and simply ask them to not make it about themselves. The ones that care will get it–even if they have to get it year after year.
TRY SOMETHING NEW AND OR CONTINUE TRADITIONS IN MEMORY OF YOUR LOVED ONE
This year, I will not be cooking a traditional Christmas feast if I cook at all. I want to try something different to reshape how I celebrate Christmas if even in a small way. Prime rib anyone? I don’t want to cry over pans of dressing that I hope I get right because my mom is not here for me to call to check anyway. In trying something new, I also avoid my triggers that send me spiraling towards that dark hole I told you about. Instead I’m going to try to establish my own family traditions like spending Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings feeding the hungry and volunteering during the entire holiday season to help families in need.
But, and I emphasize the but here, if I were up to it, I’d actually go the traditional route and make that dressing. I know that in doing so, I can relive a part of my mom’s history here with me. It would be a beautiful thing if I can make a banging pan of dressing that she’d be proud of. This year is not that year, I know that. But next year? Maybe next year.
KNOW YOURSELF AND YOUR LIMITS
I naturally battle depression. It’s genetic for me. I’ve learned to accept and deal with it so well that I can tell when a heavy cloud is heading my way. I’ve also learned over the years how to skirt it or mange it if I find myself smack dab in the middle of a storm. Knowing this also means that I don’t force myself into depression either. Remember that naked tree in my living room? Right now, it just looks like we have a random Fraiser fir in the living room, but with lights and decorations it’s transformed into a Christmas tree. If the tree goes up and I start to come down, the tree is coming down. It’s okay that I know my limits and it’s okay that you know yours too.
TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF
I’ve found that I need much more time to myself during the holidays than I’ve needed in previous years. I’m more irritable and short during the holidays if I don’t take time for myself. Being around people exhausts me much more. I don’t talk as much. I find that I need time to be in silence and cry during moments when silence is not enough. These moments are not weak moments. They are moments when I’m being myself, being human and recognizing and acting on the decision to give myself space and time is essential self care.
TALK ABOUT YOUR LOVED ONES
If this were the time and place, I’d go on and on about about the people I love who are no longer with me. My dad was the most amazing man ever and I could sit for hours and tell you stories about him. Try to surround yourself with people who want to talk about the ones you love. As part of surviving grief during the holidays, I love to sit with my uncle and watch him smile and laugh about memories of how he and my father and my other uncle used to get into so much trouble as mischievous little boys. Often people don’t talk about people who have passed on for fear of others thinking they should have “moved on” by now or that their death is in the past and they don’t want to bring up bad memories. Yes, it’s painful to hear stories of my father sometimes, especially since my uncle and father were basically twins, and while laughing sometimes I’ll also be shedding tears, but I love it that my uncle remembers my father so fondly and I can listen to the stories over and over without burden. Talk about the ones you love. Tell people how much you loved them and miss them.
IT’S OKAY TO BE SAD AND HAPPY
It’s okay to cry. Christmas makes me sad, sad, sad. It does not help that the two people who created the person who was born a week earlier is not here to call to wish me a happy birthday. I sit on the couch with a box of tissues and a blanket and I allow myself to feel all the feels. Snot and everything. I get headaches I cry so much. I throw myself into my grief so I can get through it. Let me tell you how much a good cry like that feels.
But you know what? This year so far, I have not had that sofa cry. Granted, I’m a few weeks away from my birthday and Christmas but if the sofa cry does not come that’s okay. It’s okay for me to get through both days and not even think about crying. I can laugh on my birthday and not cry, I can sit with friends, drink, eat, laugh all the laughs and still remember the people I love the most who are no longer with me. This is a gift to myself and to others around me who respect my grief but also want me to be happy. My mourning and celebration can co-exist.
UNDERSTAND THAT YOUR GRIEF IS UNIQUE
No one grieves the same. I’ve grieved a lot and each time it has been different. This year, I started going back to counseling because I realized I still had many layers to work my way through. It ebbs and flows and never fully goes away. Sometimes I’m angry and sometimes I’m sad during the holidays and on special occasions. This is all normal. What’s not normal is for me to get stuck in one cycle or another. If you are stuck and feel alone, reach out for help. Grief takes time. I remember being in a group grief counseling session a few years ago and there was a woman there who’s husband had died ten years earlier. She was doing her best to work through her grief after it had reemerged in her life. But she was there, sitting right beside me in the therapist’s office.
If you feel like you’re cycling in your grief with no way out or if your grief has reemerged, seek help. Call a therapist, friend or even your pastor. Don’t get lost in your grief or let it define you. It can be hard to get through, but it’s important to not let it consume you. Celebrate your loved ones memory by continuing to live your life. Your loved one will always be with you and one of the best ways to honor their memory is by going on with your life and with their love inside of you.
If you know someone who is grieving during the holidays, please share this article with them. If you need to seek grief counseling for yourself or someone you love and don’t know where to start, try these resources:
If you have medical insurance, call your insurance company and ask them for bereavement resources. They should be able to find you a plethora of options in or close to where you live.
Call your local mental health association or your local suicide prevention center; you can find these numbers by looking in the yellow pages or online. Both should be able to provide you with grief referrals and you do not need to be suicidal to get a referral.
If you have a friend who is a social worker or works in mental care, a pastor, a school or hospital, ask them if they could refer you to bereavement resources.
Call your local hospice care and ask to speak with the bereavement office or coordinator. They could help you by pointing you in the direction of bereavement support groups that are often free of cost.