I like to be home for Christmas.
I like our sons to be home for the holiday season, although that is not always possible these days. I enjoy having people over for Christmas as long as they come to our place. I like to stay home for Christmas.
So this week, probably triggered by the news that one of my boys will NOT be able to make it home this year albeit for good reasons, I felt deep sense of disappointment and then wondered WHY my reaction had been so profound.
Usually the reason the holidays hurt is because someone or something we would like to be there is not there. I think the reason my son’s absence this Christmas is such a downer is related to something that happened in my childhood. When I was 10 years old, my maternal grandmother, affectionately known as Granny, was severely injured when she was struck by, of all things, a speeding bicycle. She sustained very serious head injuries, and despite several operations and hopes that she would survive, 12 days later, on December 24th, the call came to my mother that the end was near, and that she should go to the hospital, where that evening she died.
That Christmas season, as you will well understand was not a very pleasant one for our family. Granny died on Christmas Eve, so all the excitement and the expectations we kids had over Christmas … the parties, the tree, the gifts, and all that goes to make the Christmas season special were dashed and disappointed. Of course, our disappointment over those things was nothing compared to the sadness of losing our Granny who had been a very special part of our lives. But nonetheless, as I reflect on it now, it was part of the mix, part of the total sense of upset and sadness that surrounded that situation.
We expected that Christmas was going to be one thing; but what happened turned out to be something else, not what we expected. And indeed not what we would ever have wanted. Many people you have served this year will probably share similar albeit different stories.
For some, it will be the sadness that someone will not be home for Christmas. But for others, it is more permanent. Someone they care about has died. This Christmas season will not be a joyful celebration.
Grieving itself seems so out of sync with the season. After all as we are reminded so constantly, “Tis the season to be jolly”. But, “bah humbug” to that. They don’t feel jolly … and may even be facing the season with dread. Christmas can be one of the most difficult times of the year for grieving people, possibly because the underlying message of the season is peace, goodwill, joy, and all good things.
But when this Christmas does not feel like that, the season itself serves as a painful reminder of what we have lost. To love is to one day mourn. It is important to remind people that no matter how long ago the loss occurred, grief is the cost of caring. Their grief does NOT tell us they are weak, not coping, or not handling things. Struggling with the holiday season after a loss says you cared about someone, and because they have died you are missing them. That’s not a sign of weakness; it is actually a tribute to how special they were. Listen to how two people expressed it: “Martha died in September and before I knew it the holiday season came crashing upon me.
As December neared, I found myself experiencing much dread and anxiety. Who would sit where Martha always sat for Christmas Eve dinner? Who would organize the decorating of the tree, something she always did so efficiently and well.
How could I attend Christmas Eve services without her? I only had painful questions and no easy answers.” “I dreaded the first Christmas after my daughter Jennifer died.
How I wished that I could just hibernate through the holiday season … fall asleep … and wake up in late January. But Jennifer had two younger siblings who had great expectations for Christmas, and so, for their sakes, I did what I could to make sure they had a merry Christmas.” So it is important to remind people to be proactive rather than reactive regarding the Christmas season:
1. Recognize that this Christmas is different.
Each holiday has its own history for your family. Traditions may have been formed decades ago, and there are layers on layers of memories. But THIS Christmas is a NEW holiday, unlike any other, no matter how hard you try to make it the same. Anticipation can be worse than reality. Christmas is a season, not just a day.
2. Plan Ahead Do what do YOU want to do.
Eliminate as much pressure as possible. Avoid as many “should’s and oughts” as possible. If it is too diff don’t do it.
There is no right or wrong way to handle the day. Some follow established patterns … others change what they do. Sit down with family or the ones who will be there and plan what would be a meaningful way to spend this holiday. The wishes of the survivor’s who are hurting the most deserve most attention. Decide on which traditions you want to keep and which to let go. What would make the season as good as possible. Then once you have decided, stick with it. Let everyone know what to expect. What you choose for the first year is not written in stone and can always be changed for another year.
3. Stay in touch with your Feelings
Family get togethers may be difficult. People are supposed to be happy and merry during the holidays, but you probably don’t feel that way. That is understandable. If you are not feeling joyful, accept those feelings. Be honest about them. To suppress emotions forces them deeper into your psyche and eventually they find other, often unhealthy ways of manifesting themselves. There are of course many emotions connected to grief. But don’t expect to experience exactly the same as someone else.
4. Don’t be afraid to Relive your Memories
Often there can be a conspiracy of silence, and no-one wants to mention the person’s name or the situation “lest someone gets upset”. Listen, we ARE upset. The only question is whether we acknowledge it or not. Mentioning the person’s name gives others permission to remember and to grieve. So, talk openly and let people know that the person who died should be mentioned. Tell stories … especially the funny ones. Remember the person and the better days and celebrate their life as well as acknowledging their death. And if there are tears and emotions, that is OK.
Pretending that everything is OK or “the same” is counter productive so acknowledge your grief even in the midst of festivities. Perhaps you could create a special tribute to the person. Light a candle and the dinner table. Attend a Memorial service, plant a tree, give a donation, help someone else, do something to acknowledge that they are not forgotten.
Helpful hint: Children are great at devising ways of remembering and paying tribute, and it gives them something to DO to remember.
5. Face the Future with Hope
In the traditional Christmas story, we read of the wise men who came from the East to Jerusalem following the star in search of a new-born King. They set off expecting one thing, but finding something quite different. After all, where do you go when you are looking for a King … you go to the royal palace. But they are disappointed. And the present King is surprised and worried about the news of this threat to his kingdom.
So the crafty King Herod invites them to continue their journey and instructs them that when they have found this King, to COME BACK and report to him. But of course, you know the story; they come to Bethlehem and find a baby who had been born in a stable. Admittedly, not a very kingly scene, but they recognize Him as the one they are seeking. So they open their treasures and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But then, they did NOT go back as they had been instructed. In fact, we are told that “They returned home by a different route” by an alternative road. In other words, they found another way home.
Sometimes, Christmas teaches us that as much as we would like, we can’t go back. Things are not the same. Grieving people need to find the courage to find a new way home. I plan to invite some friends who would otherwise be alone over this Christmas, and make the most of the day. As Rollo May puts it, ‘The only way out is ahead, and our choice is whether we shall cringe from it or affirm it