“I wish I could just skip Christmas this year,” my eighty-five year old mom tells me. She lost her second husband this past September and while they had been married less than five years, the pain remains. As her daughter, I feel for her and worry about her, but it is not the same as when my dad died eight years ago. It’s hard for me to work up a lot of sympathy for my mom because, after all, he wasn’t my father and he hadn’t been married to my mom for the fifty-five years that she had shared with my dad.

A friend of mine’s dad died just before Thanksgiving this year, leaving her lost without the man in her life who holds a place no-one else can hold and no-one can fill. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to complete the book on grief that I have planned on writing for three years, rereading books on grief and wishing I had written this years ago when I was teaching courses on grief counseling and the material was fresh in my mind. But then wasn’t the time, hopefully now is as I strive to get this book out of my head and onto paper.

I’ve reread C.S. Lewis’, A Grief Observed, and Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Two Part Invention, on her marriage to Hugh Franklin and his death from cancer. Both lost spouses to cancer, however, Lewis was still young in his love for Joy Davidman when she died, having been married for a short time, whereas L’Engle lost her husband after forty years of marriage. Both grieved tremendously, but in different ways, unique to their own personality and their differing situations. A reminder to me that the face of grief is as varied as the people involved.

Grief is hard work. It takes time and energy. This work is made harder by the holidays and memories of past holidays and all you have lost. The pressure to be “merry” may leave you feeling like crawling into a hole and only coming out after the holidays are over. People experiencing grief often want to get through the pain as quickly as possible, but try though we might, we can’t make the days go by any faster and we can’t just jump over the month of December to skip the holiday.

What we can do is not let the holidays and the pressure to celebrate run our life or ruin each day. As C.S. Lewis said, “The pain now is part of the happiness before. That’s the deal.” If you are feeling sorrow, it is precisely because you loved the deceased. It’s all part of the package. You can’t have one without the other.

Unwrap the gift of grief slowly and intentionally, or rip it open quickly. Whatever works for you. The grief you feel is a gift, a gift no-one wants, but a gift none-the-less. It is proof that you have loved and loved deeply. Keep traditions that you want to preserve, but don’t be afraid to let go of other traditions and create new ones. If having a Christmas tree is a painful reminder of all of the trees you decorated together, then forego a tree this year. If you don’t feel up to going to parties you once attended together, then stay home or opt for a small gathering of friends and/or family. Sometimes grieving requires time alone to allow your feelings to surface; other times, being with friends and family is a needed break from the work of grieving. Be open to both.

While loss of a loved one is acutely felt over the holidays, there are other losses as well, the loss of health, loss of employment, all with their own need to be grieved in their own way. For an example of how one woman made new traditions amidst health challenges, check out this blog post, A Few Thoughts on Christmas Traditions.

What about you? What are you grieving this December? How might this be a gift to you? What do you need to do to get through the holidays?

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Published by Patricia Robertson