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Grief During the Holidays: Being Sad in a World of Happy

The winter holidays are my favorite time of year. The halls of my home are certainly decked with nutcrackers and holly, stockings, garland, a miniature snow-covered village, and candles that smell like a forest of firs. I love to go ice-skating and drink hot cocoa and enjoy all the mushy gushy holiday feel-good movies. That being said, I too find myself at times overcome by a sense of grief for the people I wish I could share these moments and magic with. The holidays, though a time of joy and camaraderie, can often bring about feelings of grief and loss at the thought of family and friends no longer with us. So how can we manage and acknowledge our grief while still enjoying the precious moments in front of us?

Grief is a complex emotion not discussed enough. This is often due to the discomfort of others at witnessing our grief. Unfortunately, there are many around us who shirk away from the sight of tears or who have difficulty understanding the magnitude of our sadness and sometimes anger at losing those we love. I recently read an article written by a religious leader about funeral processions and the cognitive dissonance that comes with the rest of the world moving forward when you’ve just experienced unimaginable loss. This dissonance is especially salient at a time of year when we see so many experiencing love and joy that feels unattainable to us.

The process of moving through grief is not a quick one and it requires significant patience and willingness to sit with one’s feelings. This is perhaps why so many struggle as often we wish to simply ‘get over it’ and not feel the magnitude of our emotions. There is no ‘getting over’ grief, but this time of year can be especially healing if we allow it to be. Most of us have heard of the stages of grief but it’s important to remember that these stages are cyclical rather than linear and may repeat any number of times. What is essential this holiday season and anytime we find ourselves in the midst of a wave of grief is the awareness and acknowledgment of those feelings.

I have had clients come back to me confused at times by what I mean when I encourage them to ‘sit’ with their feelings. How can I, an expert in emotions, really think that just allowing someone to be directionlessly sad for a period of time will help? Our emotions operate very similarly to small children. They are relentless in their wishes and do not tire when being ignored. In fact, much like small children, the more you ignore them the louder and more insistent they become. Yet, when we concede to looking at their drawing or watching them go down the slide for the umpteenth time they are suddenly contented. While I certainly wouldn’t suggest always giving our children their way to appease them, I also wouldn’t recommend just ignoring our children 24/7 (that’s illegal). Our emotions demand to be felt. They don’t forget about their wish to be felt no matter how long we ignore them and the urgency and gravity of this demand only increases the longer we ignore it. By making time to really acknowledge and feel our feelings around grief those feelings become contented. Through making this a regular practice we learn to have a symbiotic relationship with our emotions, each of us getting our needs met.

So how does this apply to the holidays? Regardless of our plans, hopes, or expectations for the holidays this year our grief will likely come to visit as well. We can choose to meet this grief with the same warm welcome with which we would greet our family or friends. I read somewhere that grief is a manifestation of all the love we would’ve given to our loved one that no longer has a place to go, so we must give it a place. I encourage us all to worry less this season about being a ‘party pooper’ and to be more concerned about caring for our feelings the way we care for the feelings of others. There is no shame in heading to the bathroom for a quick cry or bringing your feelings of loss up in conversation. When we make space to feel we begin to heal.

My heart goes out to anyone out there struggling with grief this holiday season. It can feel incredibly isolating to see the happiness in others when we feel lost in the dark. Know that you aren’t alone and that there are many experiencing these human emotions with you. If you find that you need additional support please feel free to reach out.

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