The holidays are upon us once again and for those who mourn the loss of a loved one that means navigating the uncharted territory of grief and social expectations. We can all probably relate to the holidays, known for their plethora of rich tradition and social activities, as sometimes being wrought with tension and anxiety. Add to that the heightened emotions of grief and you may have a recipe for disaster.
I’ve learned that our sense of loss and longing is sometimes exaggerated when special days roll around, bringing with it deep loneliness and perhaps even confusion. This natural reaction to the anticipation of a special day should be honored in personal ways that work best for each of us.
In the Christian tradition, Advent, the four weeks prior to Christmas, is a time of hope in church communities across the globe. As a wise and faith-filled clergyman recently penned “Hope, which brings joy, is the spiritual attitude of Advent.” He went on to say that without hope there is no joy. That attitude of hope must permeate every season of our grief if we are to find joy once again — not only during the holidays, but also beyond.
If anyone would have told me that I would ever find joy again after the sudden death of my husband Trent, 22 years ago — particularly around the holidays — I suspect I would have run from the conversation in a fit of disbelief and tears. During those early years following Trent’s death, as I raised my two preschool-aged daughters without their loving father, I did find myself confused, with the rather frightening feeling that I was moving backward in my grief, whenever an anniversary or holiday approached.
As I went through the motions of that first Advent season, I found myself overly sensitive and at the same time numb to the festivities. Was there hope in my heart? To be honest I don’t recall much of that year — a blessing in my estimation — but I do know that I survived — and revived joy— in subsequent years as I learned how to take care of myself in my grief, particularly during a holiday or special event.
Paramount to my journey was giving myself permission to feel whatever emotions surfaced. That took some practice as I tried so hard to live up to everyone else’s expectations. As I learned to plan ahead with ways to respond to certain situations I found the holidays easier to navigate. Taking breaks from the festivities helped renew the spirit of hope in my heart so I quickly learned to make quiet time for myself to just “be.”
When I finally relaxed into my own rhythm — after a couple of years — I noticed that I held some holiday traditions dear and others were exchanged as I made room for Trent’s memory. A few of the traditional parties are no longer on my social calendar but I make sure not to isolate myself as I seek support for my grief.
Remembering our loved ones in special ways can make the holidays much more meaningful. One special way the girls and I found joy in honoring Trent that first year was to gift his family with dove ornaments embossed with his name. Our family ornament still hangs front and center on our Christmas tree every year.
I have witnessed others who ceremoniously light a candle at a family gathering, make a photo album, say a prayer or invite others to tell stories. My sister made a special Christmas stocking in memory of her son Adam who died of leukemia. Each year since his death she offers special Christmas stationary on which to write a memory to be placed in the stocking. Your loved one can be forever part of your holiday experience, just in a different way.
Another way to remember our loved ones that brings joy to my heart is by speaking their names and telling stories of times past. I learned along the way that family and friends sometimes were reluctant to speak about my loss, but when I broke the ice, they usually joined in. For those who choose not to join the conversation, with its laughter and its tears, I just remember that each grief journey is unique and worthy of honoring.
I’ve also learned that it’s okay to have fun during the holidays even in grief. It’s a way to take a break from the oppression of mourning, connect with your loved one and recapture a little of the joy of the holiday. Even in the loneliness of grief following Trent’s death, I was deeply grateful to have known him and all that my life held in his stead. Take time to pause this Advent season and discover the hope that these expectant days hold even as you grieve. Let the hope stirring in your heart ring in God’s gift of joy this Christmas.