There is so much pressure to be happy in our culture, especially at the holidays. We are supposed to have a “merry little Christmas” somehow. If you are grieving during the holidays, you may be feeling anything but happy. It doesn’t matter how long ago the death occurred. The holidays are a time when we most long for those who are no longer here with us.
Grief can make us feel sad, angry, scared, or regretful, We may have times when we feel happy which can make us feel guilty; as if we were betraying the person who died by not feeling bad all the time. We may feel envious of those who haven’t lost what we have. All of these feelings are normal.
Rabbi Earl Grollman says, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity—the price you pay for love.” We especially feel the cost of love during the holidays. As painful as grief can be, there is nothing wrong with us if we are grieving. Grief doesn’t take a holiday and in fact our feelings of grief may be even stronger than at other times of the year.
Last year was the first Christmas without my mother-in-law. She loved Christmas: baking cookies, decorating the tree, gifts carefully chosen and wrapped. When my daughters were little she would play Christmas songs on the piano for them. We always spent Christmas Eve at her home. Christmas without her was hard and sad.
So, I decided to let myself be sad. I missed her and so did my family. Why try to pretend that all was well when it wasn’t. One of the things I’ve had to learn over and over in my life is that if I try to suppress or hide how I am feeling, I end up not feeling much at all which ends up being much worse. As it turned out, because I let myself feel the sadness of missing my mother-in-law, I had some happy moments too.
Some of the pressure to have a “happy holiday” comes from well meaning advice and encouragement from others. A few years ago, I went to a grief training with Alan Wolfelt. In the class there was a man whose twenty year old son had died just a few months earlier. The class listened as this grieving father shared how friends and family were advising him to get back to playing golf and enjoying his life. Alan said something to the man I will never forget. “I recommend anhedonia.” (Anhedonia is the experience of not being able to experience pleasure.) In other words Alan was saying, that when we are grieving, we need to give ourselves permission to not get pleasure out of the thing we used to enjoy and that includes the holidays.
During the holidays it is especially important to reach out for support. Who are the people in your life who can be there for you? Who are the people who will listen without offering advice? Who are the people who will understand if you need to change plans at the last minute? Who are the people who will let you have all your feelings? Surrounding yourself as much as possible with people like this makes all the difference especially if you a grieving a recent death.
What if we let ourselves have the memories of Christmas past and the grief of Christmas present? This coming holiday may you give yourself the gift of having all your feelings.