Holidays and Sneaky Grief

Holidays and Sneaky Grief

When I was a little girl, our neighbor and bonus grandmother Bernice cooked a huge dinner for her closest friends. For years we attended this dinner and I remember seeing her wearing an old fashioned apron and her classically immovable hair. I thought it was so fancy that she slept on a rolled satin pillow to keep her hair perfectly coiffed between visits to the beauty parlor. All these decades later I can close my eyes and hear the chatter of people, imagine the feel of the pedals on my feet of her antique pump organ, smell collard greens and green beans bubbling with fatback, and taste her buttery drop biscuits. I still can’t recreate anything close to those biscuits.

Just yesterday I visited the store where she died. I remember getting the call when I was in seminary that tragically her car had popped out of gear while she was loading flowers and it rolled over her. My heart ached yesterday as I stood in the same parking lot at the thought of her death. I hungered to be back in her home on Christmas Eve surrounded by people we only saw once or twice a year but who have become essential characters in my Christmas memories.

Holiday grief is like that: one minute you’re remembering something warm and beautiful from years past then a wave of sorrow crashes over you as the faces of your dead loved ones show up in those same memories. Every year as we unbox Christmas ornaments I come across many given to me by people who are no longer living and I am at once honored, happy, sad, and lonely. The little stockings my grandmother made us immediately bring back images of nuts and oranges tucked inside, the taste of her Christmas tree cookies, and a desperate longing to sit at her red formica table for one last meal together or at least a hand of Rook.

Grief this time is difficult not only because it’s the holidays and we miss being with loved ones who are gone, but because of the little triggers we aren’t expecting. We anticipate missing a dead parent when we pull out pictures of them among the decorations. What we don’t anticipate is walking into the grocery store and smelling a holiday bread fresh from their bakery that smells just like the one the dead parent baked every year but we had forgotten about because they only baked it during the holidays.

This is sneaky grief. It’s as much a part of the holiday season as jingle bells and fake snow, especially as we grow older.

Friends, be nice to yourselves. Our surrounding culture tells us Christmas is happy and cheerful and wonderful and all smiles! At best, this toxic positivity about the holidays creates in many of us a sense of loneliness. In many cases it fills us with shame for failing to get the holidays “right.” Grieving or depressed people feel they must be the only ones feeling what they feel and that it is one more reason why they have either been abandoned, are failing to “get it together,” or both.

The truth is that every adult will feel at least some measure of sadness this time of year. It may manifest itself in different ways, but at the core there is loss of some sort. Maybe family is too far away to gather for the holidays, maybe grown children are estranged, maybe the person who always cooks the ham is in the hospital, or maybe the holidays just don’t feel as magical as they have before and there’s no one reason why. Grief comes honestly and naturally this time of year. It’s time to refuse to accept any shame or embarrassment for it.

When you start to feel off, whether it’s cranky or tired, melancholy or emotional, slow down; take stock of your surroundings. It’s likely something has tickled your memories and triggered a response, even if you’re not conscious of it. Resist the urge to bury or run from this feeling. Allow yourself to sit in that loss for a bit. Becoming aware of how you are holding it allows you to loosen your grip enough to relax and give thanks for the source of that grief.

You’re not alone. You’re not failing. You’re not abnormal or wretched or incapable or irredeemable or any of the other things we tell ourselves in moments like this when we are certain we aren’t behaving like everyone else.

Be aware especially of smells. They trigger many memories when we least expect it, which can be a beautiful and/or a heartbreaking thing. Holidays carry a special set of aromas we don’t encounter any other time of year. There are decorations, foods, drinks, and activities we partake in during Christmastide that are put back in a box and up on a shelf until the following year. That means if you’ve experienced a loss in January or February, nearly a year will have gone by before you encounter these triggers for the first time since that loss.

Go gently, my friends. Be nice to yourselves. You aren’t alone. And you are loved.
Happy Holidays to you all. May they be filled with blessings that bring joy and blessings that bring healing.

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