The Bittersweet Season: Grief in the Midst of the Holidays

Many of us enter this holiday season with both joy and sadness in our hearts.

We remember, and long for, loved ones who have died, even as we celebrate with gratitude the abundance that fills us and the friends and family around us. Some of us are caring for frail or ill loved ones, or are dealing with health issues of our own. Anxiety and depression mark the season for some, and poverty and isolation make a mockery of the good cheer that is expected at this time of year.

I cannot heal these wounds, though I fervently wish I could. I try, through my work and in my personal life, to ease the pain where I can.

What I can do is share some of the little things that seem to make a difference for me as a bereaved mother, and hopefully inspire some of your thinking about what is meaningful for you.

My own list of simple pleasures helps create the serene mood of the season that I value and make space for sadness. They reduce, rather than add to, my stress. They help me honor both my joy for the season and my grief, and to remember the many who are suffering as I express gratitude for what I have.

Here’s my list, along with some thoughts about how it might work for you:

Remember your loved ones who have died – don’t try to shut out memories of your loved one, thinking that will help you get through the season. Instead, schedule time to focus on that person (or people) and let whatever feelings are present come to the surface. You may light a candle, make a donation in memory of your loved one, or attend a “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” service.

These are services specifically for people who are grieving or suffering through the holidays. (When I googled “Blue Christmas Service,” I got lots of good information. You may be able to find one near you, or create your own ceremony to share with others or experience alone).

Every year since my daughter’s death I have participated in the Worldwide Candle Lighting sponsored by The Compassionate Friends. It’s a way to connect with other bereaved parents and siblings around the world, and with those who support us. We send a wave of light around the globe! I invite you to join us this year on December 14th at 7 p.m.in your time zone.WCL 2014 CMYK

Have eggnog – I know this is fattening but a little bit of this wonderful stuff is redolent with the flavor of the holiday.

Sit by the fire – I am very fortunate to have a gas fireplace, and it’s the feature I most love about my house. Instead of a fireplace, you might light a cluster of candles. All winter holidays share the idea that there is light in the midst of darkness.

Play holiday music – I have some special albums that always soothe my spirit. Most are on the order of the “Winter Solstice” and “Celtic Christmas” variety, but the one holiday album I must listen to every year is the one John Denver made with the Muppets.

It’s not as corny as it sounds – there is some very moving music there, lightened up by more typical Muppet antics. Music seems to reach into the hurting places in me and release some of the pain.

Decorate the tree – I skipped this one year and regretted it. It seems like a pain to get everything out and assembled, only to have to put things away again, but I love the ritual of placing each ornament and remembering who or where it came from. It’s a bittersweet time but a way to honor the past while being fully in the moment. Then I love to look deeply into the branches at the lights and the colors. It’s magical!

Your tradition might be to light a Menorah, celebrate the Solstice, or to otherwise honor your Spirit. These rituals can be a tremendous comfort for many. When they cause bitterness or pain, you can respectfully decline and do what works for you at this point in your journey.

Connect with friends and family – Visits are wonderful, and if they don’t happen for whatever reason, a phone call helps. It’s been too difficult for me to send Christmas cards for several years, but I am grateful for Facebook and the way it allows me to interact and share small moments, photos, jokes, and encouragement.

There are also online support groups, and may be a group in your area. For bereavement support, check with your local Hospice or Hospital.

If you are alone, please consider going to a community-hosted meal, or volunteer at a nursing home. You have gifts to share as well as to receive, and your service to others is a wonderful way to connect.

Have a cry – the season carries hope and longing, joy and sadness. Let the tears come when they will.

Make some cookies – I used to make dough and roll out dozens of cookies. While I don’t have the time or energy to do that now, I’ve learned that the smell of baking and the pleasure of a warm sugar cookie can be achieved with the refrigerated, slice-and-bake kind.

Read the story of the birth of Christ – this is important to me, and I recognize your own selection may be from another faith tradition or secular source. My father always read “The Night Before Christmas” to us before we went to bed on Christmas Eve, and I’ve maintained the tradition. Another favorite is “The Christmas Carol,” and we watch our favorite movie version of this every year.

Drink hot chocolate – Enough said.

If you celebrate Chanukah or practice an Earth religion, you will have your own list. I encourage you to treat yourself to a little gift each day, something that helps you feel special and cared for. It may be a flavored lip balm or gloss, a favorite candy bar, or a “guilty pleasure” spy novel or romance. Take a moment to reflect on the miracle of lights, perhaps by having your own menorah for private contemplation.

If you can, treat yourself to a massage, invite a friend for coffee, or connect with a counselor to help you express your feelings and develop a strategy for coping.

If your feelings overwhelm you or you think about suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

What keeps you going? How do you balance the need to honor your grief with the expectations of the holiday season?

Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Blessings of the Season to you and yours!

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