“I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
As we embark on the holiday season with Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, we are expected to and expect others to participate in and feel words like “joy,” “cheer,” “peace” and, “giving thanks.” When I was younger, I couldn’t wait for this season to start so I could experience and immerse myself in all the words I mentioned above. There was something magical and heart-changing about the lights, decorations, and the spirit of giving. Now, after experiencing the deep-cutting and profound loss of my husband, I have tip-toed up to the holiday season holding my breath. For a griever, the holidays can be a ticking-time bomb of memories and triggers. For me, it marks a chain of events that makes it hard for me to catch my breath all winter long: the end of October is my daughter’s birthday, mid-November is my husband’s death-date, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day (the day he and I met,) the end of February is our wedding anniversary, and then the beginning of March is our twin boys’ birthday. Winter for me is an emotional “kaboom” so this year I’ve been bracing myself, being incredibly intentional with extra self-care and thinking ahead how I will mourn on these days while also living life as it goes on and creating new memories with my little ones. With that said, I’m focusing this post on the concept of “giving thanks” from a griever’s standpoint.
If your loss is fresh and new, you may feel like you want to disassociate from any of the Holiday Spirit words splashed all about the country. You may feel like you just want to skip the holidays that focus so heavily on family and being together. You may feel guilty for wanting to skip the holidays or others may be making you (intentionally or unintentionally) feel guilty about wanting to bypass the holidays. Whether your loss is new or a while ago, there may be a lot of “shoulds” going around your head, or being suggested from well-meaning family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even strangers. “You should be thankful you still have a job, so many family and friends to support you, your kids, your house, your health, that you don’t live in a third-world country, that you have food in the fridge etc.… (fill in the blank)” Or if you’re a person of faith, well-meaning individuals may want to comfort you with, “Well, be thankful he/she’s in Heaven.” “Be thankful you’ll see him/her again.” “Be thankful he/she’s in a better place.” Therein lies the paradox of being a griever—being surrounded by so many things you’re thankful for. And you are. You are thankful for all those things, but you are also missing someone and it’s OK in the midst of all the thankfulness to say, “I’m hurting, this sucks, I’m lonely, and it’s not fair…I know I will see them again, but for now, right now in this moment, I want them to be here with me. I don’t want them to be gone.”
As a caretaker of a grieving person (that means anyone who is in the room with a person who has experienced loss: family member, friend, co-worker, neighbor) please throw the “shoulds” out the window. If someone around you is depressed or a Holiday party “downer” and in angst because their loss is bubbling up with this holiday season, don’t try to give them a pep talk of “Well at least you…” phrases. Believe me, they are painfully aware of all they have to be thankful for. They are painfully aware not to take things for granted, that time is short, and the things and people in their lives are not going to last forever—they are thankful for the presence of each of those things. Even more so, with all the other things that we grievers are so grateful for, we are grateful that we can grieve our loved one at all; meaning that if we never had the privilege to know them, we’d never have the privilege to miss them.
But for a moment, even in the midst of the cheer and laughter and joy, if you are the caretaker of a grieving person, grant the griever permission to feel the pain, the sadness and the terrible ache of missing their loved one. Also know that there’s no forcing gratitude, humility, joy and peace on someone else; those are deeply personal things someone who’s going through the deep, dark valley will have to come to while on their own pursuit of and grappling with God.
So this holiday season, if you know someone who may be grieving (whether they verbalize it or not), put all the “chin-up” cheerleading phrases on hold, and don’t be scared to give the griever permission to feel his/her emotions by acknowledging the griever’s bittersweet holiday experience. Some might say, “Well I’m not good with sad things or people who cry.” Well, I say to you in the most gentle way possible, “Get over yourself, it’s not about you.” And it’s not. When comforting a grieving person, giving them the gift of permission and a safe place to miss and feel the loss, is a priceless gift that will aid in his/her healing. It will be something the griever will be thankful for; they may never say it, but you can be assured they feel it.