If Grief Is Clouding Your Holidays, You Are Not Alone

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
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On a cold December afternoon four years ago, my holiday decorating frenzy was in full swing. Boxes of garland, ornaments, and holiday bric-a-brac lay strewn on our couches and floor as I tried to make sense of it all. My husband had taken the kids out for the afternoon, and I was determined to tackle the Christmas decorating before they got home.

My mantle glowed softly with the white twinkle lights that had taken me the better part of an hour to untangle. I just needed our family stockings to complete my holiday scene, but finding them in the myriad of boxes around me had proven futile.

I absentmindedly opened yet another box, and as I glanced at the contents inside, my heart sank.

I had found our family stockings, and on the top of the pile of green and red felt stockings was the one labeled “Poppy.”

My dad’s stocking.

My fingers traced the white cursive lettering, and I felt the tears well up in my eyes. My father had only been gone for a few months, and I’d forgotten that I’d packed his stocking away the previous year, never dreaming it would be the last time he’d use it at my house. He’d been diagnosed with esophageal cancer just after Christmas and died nine months later.

As the familiar sadness and the pain washed over me, I felt yet again gut punched by grief.

Suddenly, I no longer cared whether I finished the decorating. My Christmas spirit had left the building.

Because that’s what grief does: It waits until you aren’t looking and then levels you with a haymaker right to the heart.

And that’s on a good day.

Grieving during the holidays is a whole other level of hell.

The feelings of loss don’t relent because Christmas trees are shining brightly in windows, and grief doesn’t give a fuck about holiday obligations.

Grief seems to take a special pleasure in reminding you that every tradition, special memory, and gathering will feel empty and hollow now that your loved one is gone.

Holiday celebrations go from joyous occasions to tedious events that must be survived. There isn’t enough wine to dull the painful loss of a parent and realizing that my father would never again dress up as Santa to surprise my kids hit me hard during that first Christmas without him.

When you are grieving, watching the joyful merrymaking happening around you makes you have to suppress a guttural scream because it seems unfathomable that you should have to stand an office Christmas party and pretend like your dad isn’t dead. How are you expected to plaster a smile on your face and pretend everything is okay when the grief threatens to swallow you whole?

Grief and loss make you want to punch Bing Crosby right in his chestnut-roasting face.

Simply put, everything is intolerable at the holiday when you are grieving.

Christmas cookies taste bitter and flat. Holiday music feels forced and ridiculous. Shopping for gifts, a pleasure I used to delight in from year to year, feels meaningless because the reality of loss never goes away. And forget watching classic Christmas movies because It’s a Wonderful Life will reduce you to a blithering mess.

Every sight, smell, and sound related to your family’s holiday traditions are forever changed the minute your loved one is no longer a physical part of the celebration.

Family dynamics change after the death of a loved one, and often, the pain of grieving is so great that your relationships with those close to you become distant and strained. The question of who is hosting the holiday now that Mom is gone can be daunting for families struggling with grief. Angry words, hurt feelings, and an inability to see beyond the pain can make holiday gatherings feel like more trouble than they are worth.

Grief doesn’t give a shit that your family is falling apart and that you are downing spiked egg nog like it’s your job in order to survive family gatherings.

While people mean well when they say, “He’d have wanted you to enjoy the holiday!” or “It’s time to move on,” the fact is, grieving takes time and the holidays magnify the hurt and sadness.

And all of it, the sugar plums, the candy canes, and that goddamned Elf on the Shelf menace, sucks hard when viewed through the filter of heavy sadness.

However, as much as the holidays have sucked because of grief, I have found there is a silver-lining that comes when you are dealing with loss.

You realize your family is fighting their own grief battles at the holidays too. And you forgive them when they are grumpy and hard to manage.

You hold your friends closer when you gather at their houses for cookie exchanges. Cookies and the laughter of friends always make things better.

You realize that less really is more when it comes to gift giving. Your gifts tend to be more meaningful when you are in the throes of grief.

Grief makes you more sympathetic to the guy who is grumbling about shopping carts at the grocery store. You wonder if he, too, is grieving like you, and you give him a pass to be pissy.

You find ways to honor your loved one through charities and donations, money you might not have given before you suffered your loss.

You realize that life really is too short, and you are much more selective about the holiday gatherings you attend. Suddenly, your holiday calendar isn’t crowded, and you opt for more quiet nights at home with your family.

You realize that life goes on, even when the grief makes it seem like you’ll never move past the tears and the memories that make the holidays hard. Each year gets a tad easier, and you hate Bing Crosby a tiny bit less.

So, yes, grief has made holidays harder (and sometimes hellish) for me since my dad died.

But when I’m sitting with a glass of my Dad’s favorite Scotch while watching Clark Griswold’s antics in A Christmas Vacation, I can almost feel my dad sitting next to me, laughing with me in all the right places.

And I know that’s his holiday gift to me.

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