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How to Grieve During the Holidays

by CLAIRE BIDWELL SMITH

The year my mother died, when I was eighteen, the holidays were particularly brutal. Everything served as a reminder of what I had lost. My mother, who had embraced holidays and always strived to make everything festive and magical, was absent. In her place was a shared grief between my father and me.

On Christmas morning, under the tree, there was a single present from my father. The stockings my mother had knitted years ago and which were usually bursting with gifts, hung empty on the mantle. Inside the wrapped box from my father was a large frying pan, an homage to my mother who had loved to cook. I thanked him quietly and went to my room and wept.

It wasn’t the gifts, or lack thereof; it was the absence of my mother. At age 18, I was just beginning to step out into the world and I didn’t know how I would do that without her. I also didn’t know how to manage my grief. At times I felt numb; other times I would fall to my knees before lunchtime, sobs coursing through me. I didn’t know how to be around my friends anymore but I didn’t know how to be alone. Anxiety and depression cycled through me in a tandem helix and the future was no longer what I imagined.

Now, twenty years out from that loss, with a decade of work as a grief therapist under my belt, I well understand how hard the holidays can be for those who are grieving. The first year has its own particular pain with everything occurring for the first time without the person who is gone. And ensuing years often serve as a reminder of who is lost and what has changed, no matter how long ago it was.

The holidays are also difficult when grieving because it can often feel as though the whole world is happy and carrying on around you when you yourself are in a place of pain and sadness. It can be hard to summon the desire or strength to gather with family and friends when you are feeling raw and vulnerable. It can feel lonely and isolating to be grieving during such a festive time of the year.

What I discovered for myself, and what I now tell my clients, is that you should strive to take extra care of yourself during the holidays. You shouldn’t force yourself to do anything you don’t want to do. Especially if this is your first year or two without your person, let yourself off the hook. If you want to take a day to close the curtains and watch Netflix, that’s okay. Trying to put on a bright face and join in holiday festivities can often make a grieving person feel worse.

Grief lasts longer than most people realize. Certain losses can follow us throughout our lifetimes, and while we may not always be actively grieving, years or even decades later we may still be feeling the effects of that loss. There is no right way to grieve. There is no perfect formula, nor is there an exact series of emotions we should experience. There are common traits of sadness, anxiety, anger, and depression. And there are also varying levels of acceptance that may come and go. There will be some years when you are more triggered than others, depending on the circumstances of your life. Taking time to honor your grief, your person, and your own life lived since they were here, is what matters.

In all my years of doing grief work, one of the most interesting attributes I’ve seen in those who grieve is a pressure and expectation on themselves to “be doing better” than they really are. I will say it again: there is no right way to grieve. Cultivating compassion and forgiveness for yourself is some of the best work you can do when you are grieving. Meet yourself exactly where you are, and let that be okay.

Grief can eventually become an opportunity for enormous growth and transformation. Where I only felt pain and anger that first year after my mother died, I am now in a very different place. Twenty years later I find myself bursting with wonder and gratitude for all the ways her presence, and absence, have shaped me. I still have that frying pan my father gave me, even though he too now is gone. I cooked dinner for my family in it the other night, in a room as warm and festive as the ones my mother created for me growing up. And even though neither of my parents are here, the love we shared still is.

CLAIRE BIDWELL SMITH

Claire Bidwell Smith, LCPC, is a therapist specializing in grief and best-selling author. Her latest book is "Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief."

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