I have a love/slightly contentious relationship with Christmas. I love the spirit of giving pieces of my heart to my most loved. I love going to church (any one will do) to soak in words of hope, to hear “Be not afraid” and to sing carols through my sweet tears and candlelight. I love baking and sharing and toasting and fires. I love sleepy days in sweatpants and slippers.
I can do without the stress and people who just don’t seem to “get” what this is even all about – the people who yell at me for taking a wide turn in a parking lot (even now I send you blessings, lady who yelled!). I can do without spending time with people whom I would rather not, and the annoying way my pants never seem to fit, come January.
There is so much at play at this time of year: we have encouragement all over the place (from me, included!) who want you to make the Very! Most! of every moment, to review the year and dream big as the new year rolls in, and let’s not even talk about the ridiculous pressure to have the perfect tree, pile of gifts, meal, hair, outfit, children, shovelled walk, and Instagram-worthy photos of it all as it happens. It can be a veritable shit storm all on its own, amIright?
But for some people, grief is here, too. For those of us who have lost someone close, this can all be very hard. Damn. Hard.
A friend of mine lost her beloved dad this year, and as the holidays march along, I watch her grief and hold her as well as I can. She is struggling and bravely offering up her vulnerability to be with whatever it is as she lives on in a world that doesn’t quite make sense. She is sharing it and talking about and to my delight, making it all a little more accessible and normalized (for it is my raison d’etre, you see.)
I hold her closely in her experience, and at the same time, I respect my own boundaries because I know my own grief is a slippery slope.
Last year, I lost my ex-husband and dear friend to suicide. I also lost my last grandfather, and a dear, dear old friend, and a beloved mentor. If you’re not up on the math, that means that four men who were very important to me all left, and in the span of less than nine months. By Christmas, I was no longer functioning in my grief. I just gave over to it.
I worked hard to heal and be with my grief and this year felt…better? But it’s tenuous. I know that. I am not naive to think that I won’t get to dance closely again with my old friend, Grief, or a new, fresher version of it at any time.
I am asked all the time (so often that it’s a chapter in the book I will complete next year) how I do it? How, after so much loss in one year, did I hold it together?
Truthfully, all I know is what I did (and trust me, I did not do well with my grief all the time). If you have recently lost a loved one, or if your loss was not so recent but feels particularly acute over the holidays, I offer you this small but mighty advice:
- Be with it, even when it’s shit. And it will be. (See the point above where I said grief is Damn. Hard. It is.) The sooner that you give yourself permission to do whatever feels right in YOUR grief, the better off you’ll be. No two people seem to grieve the same way, so no copying.
- Ask for what you need. Sometimes that means asking to be included in social events, but left to weep in the corner or snuggle with the dog by the fire. It can also mean that you ask to be left alone, with the promise that you’ll reach out. Just ask. It’s the time of year when you get a free pass to skip the gift-giving and do whatever feels right.
- Grieve. Don’t avoid it. It will find you. If you don’t know what I mean by that, ask me in a comment.
- Cry at Starbucks. (I’ve done it, and it’s actually quite lovely how strangers will send you love and quietly keep you safe while you do.)
- Buy yourself things that feel indulgent and kind. For me, this means linen napkins to eat with, and flannel pjs and fancy teas to warm me up.
- Buy gifts for the person you are missing. Last year, I bought my ex-husband two books and a bottle of Scotch. With each purchase, I realized too late that I was buying a gift that would never be opened, and so I re-gifted them (the books, anyway) and considered it as my offering to grief.
- Cry Uncle. It’s okay to not be okay. I wish I realized this much, much sooner, but it’s okay to say “No. I can’t. I can’t. I am not okay. I love you for inviting me and I really have to take care of myself right now. I will see you in the New Year. Please keep loving me.” The people who really matter won’t be offended, and the people who are bothered don’t matter. Just another gift of grief: showing you who truly makes space for you, mess and all.
- The only way through it is through. This goes back to avoiding it. Just don’t. Your grief is here to tell you important things and have you feel in your bones. Let it.
Grief means we were blessed to love someone enough to feel it so deeply that they are gone.
Good grief is grief that we allow.
If this is you, if you are here in the Land of Grief, I invite you to be gentle and caring with yourself – over the holidays and after, for as long as it takes.
And if you are supporting someone who is in this tender spot right now, show them this, and offer them a hug. Ask them what they truly need and give it to them, even if it’s inconvenient for you or you don’t understand the request. It’s Christmas, after all, and you like to give.