Grief + The Holidays (+the Counselor)

Grief is such a strange thing. So are memories and trauma. They’re all connected.

As with most meaningful things I have to say, there will be some “me” in this writing – personal parallels I draw to explain my thinking and to dispel the belief that we therapists know everything or function optimally at all points in time. (Hint: We are not, in fact, the men behind the curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz, people.)

The holiday season is full of fun things: Christmas lights, great food, family visiting, the smells of pumpkin and cinnamon, hugs, mistletoe, crisp and cold nights.

It is also full of icy roads, comparison, complaints, obnoxious too-long hugs from people, dry turkey, runny noses, grief, loss, trauma, sad memories, and reminders of all the things we can screw up throughout the year.

Coming into Thanksgiving this year I offered to cook for a part of my family. I wanted to save someone I love dearly from the trouble of doing it. I wanted to do something nice. My heart was in the right place, I’m just not sure exactly where my brain was! In my family, Thanksgiving isn’t just Thanksgiving. It marks a holiday of great loss in my family. My grandfather died after a long fight with cancer in October (almost 30 years ago), several other deaths in my family happened that month, and so Thanksgiving for us also marks out this very distinct point in time of “before loss” and “after loss”.

For some of us, this is especially difficult and no matter how many years go by, we don’t handle it well. For some of us, (me), we think we can bake our way out of all the grief, and that by shining it on, eventually, somehow, we can make this holiday something nice again. Not smart.

Grief and loss come out in different ways for people. Some cry, some hide, some avoid, some get angry, some nit-pick your dressing making abilities until you’re crying in the kitchen due to a celery shortage. It wasn’t ever about dressing, though. It’s just a way of dealing with the anger of not having the holiday we envisioned because instead we lost someone.

My pre-emptive response this year to all of that impending doom was to just ignore it. Offer to make things as easy for others as possible, definitely not to bring up the man not at our table for nearly 30 years. Definitely, to blame the anger and fussiness of some of us on their bad attitude rather than on their loss and how they cope with it.

Not smart.

I did this several times over Thanksgiving. A dear friend of mine has recently had a loss, and I just didn’t even mention it. Frozen. “Oh, that parfait looks great, what sauce is that?” Was my response instead. Someone I love very much sat right next to me and said how he was hurting – and I could feel it, and again – I say the usual stuff, “I’m sorry,” “Yeah…”. I can’t dare talk about it in the moment.

I tiptoed around this holiday in my Vans and my apron trying my best not to poke any bears with sticks, lest we all end up in a sobbing heap of mess, totally unable to enjoy any pie. What I was really doing was avoiding my own bear. My own stick.

My grandfather died in October, my parents began announcing their impending divorce around Christmas one year, my Granny died in early December, my Aunt Lola in late October….you get the idea. It’s not just events that happen around this time of year that are grief-inducing; it’s the time of year itself.

No other time of year so poignantly brings up comparison of past and present as do major holidays.

Memory, Comparison & Holidays

Memory plays a vital role in trauma and grief. Without emotion we encode nothing, or at least far less, as far as memories are concerned. The more emotion regarding an event, the easier it is to recall for most of us, and the longer it stays with us. Sensory input is a big factor in memory as well. The more of your senses you utilize during an event, the more likely you are to recall it, the easier it is to recall it after a long period of time.

Holidays are laden with emotion. The surprise we feel as we open gifts, the joy at games we play, the joy when cousins actually make it in for the holiday, seeing people we only see this handful of days each year, the emotional love and devotion that goes into making a meal big enough to feed all 23 members of your family, the disgust when you burn the turkey, the loathing of cleaning the kitchen, the frustration when the dog steals something off a plate left unattended. Hello, easy memory-making!

We have memories of holidays and they stick with us so well that these become the basis of one of our natural ‘evils’ – comparison making.

We have memories of holidays as kids. With our grandparents, our parents, our brothers and sisters. Without our grandparents, without our parents, without our siblings. Memories of holidays when everyone made it home. Memories when only a few of us did.

Holidays are a great marker of time and change. Today it’s normal for families to be spread out geographically, and so holidays carry special weight. It’s the one time of year you may see your nephew that drives in from Idaho or your daughter that comes home from Washington.

It’s all too easy when we walk in the front door of Aunt Mable’s house to look around and open the section of our brains labeled, “Holidays Past”. It’s also natural and normal. Especially when things change in big ways.

The Grief

Grief can present itself in a lot of different ways. Someone might be angry, distant, cold, tearful, or flatly avoid all interaction.

The answer to the issue of holidays past, loss, grief, and pain during holidays is not to bake your way into a frenzy of people pleasing or pretending that all is well when it isn’t. It also isn’t commenting on your friend’s fantastic parfait-making abilities, or saying, “Yeah,” when someone you love says how small their holiday gathering is this year. It’s also not making parfaits until your fridge is full or trying to entertain your girlfriend as a means of distraction.

That’s called avoidance. It puts pressure on you to make everything good or to pretend it is, and pressure on the people hurting to carry on. It throws an unhappy log on the holiday memory fire.

There’s a whole list of things that are way more helpful. Literally:

  1. For someone who is grieving, be aware of their heightened sense that someone is missing. When you’ve lost a member of your family, in any way – from death, a move across the country, divorce, etc. – you’re painfully aware that this person(s) is missing. Even the happiest events are tinged with sadness. Ask and listen if you can tell someone is hurting. If you’re hurting, speak up.
  2. Social gatherings are hard. Small talk can feel unbearable when you’re grieving. It can feel like intentional avoidance of the elephant in the room. Walking into a room full of couples when you’ve lost your spouse, or into an event with children after your child has died can feel totally soul crushing. If you’ve invited someone in the throes of loss (again, of any kind: death, a major life change, divorce) give that invite with pre-acceptance of cancellation, “I’ll understand if it seems too much to come or if you don’t feel up to staying the entire time.” If you’re not ok, say so, and say why.
  3. Use your words and your presence. If you’re at an event with a friend or family member you know is grieving, offer to stick by their side for support. Let them know you’re thinking about the person they’ve lost, invite them to talk about that person. Don’t be afraid to say that person’s name.
  4. Extended family interaction can feel awkward. For family members that aren’t present for all of an experience of loss we’re having, they can show up and be surprised that we’re still in our grief process. They may think we shouldn’t be sad after X amount of time. They may totally avoid talking about your loss, or not know how to. That can leave the person grieving feeling like a person(s), or event is being totally erased from existence. Talk about it and make it ok to discuss whatever the grieving person is comfortable sharing. If you’re grieving and need time away from these interactions, take it.
  5. Don’t be afraid of tears. If you’re grieving, tears are a thing. Grief often works it way out this way. Sometimes grieving people can pick up on the discomfort others feel when or if they feel sad or might cry. They also pick up on judgment – that their tears may be read as a sign that they aren’t doing ok. Tears aren’t wrong, they’re normal. Let grieving people know it’s ok to let that out, to be real, and if you feel like crying, give yourself time and space to do it.

Basically, don’t avoid someone’s grief because you’re uncomfortable. Do as I say – not as I did, do as I’ll do here in a couple of weeks at Christmas.

If you’re grieving – it’s ok to bring it up. Other people’s discomfort is theirs to deal with. You’re grieving. You have enough to cope with.

The holidays aren’t a magical time of gifts and pie for everyone – or they aren’t only that. It is possible to honor the way things were, to remember and grieve for those not with us, to mark the changes of life, to enjoy the pie, and to smile while we cry into it.

Happy remembering, ya’ll.


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