As the holidays approach, most of us are engulfed with images of happy shoppers adorning their kitchens with comfort food and their living rooms with festive decorations; their smiles offer a false impression to many that the holidays are always occasions that conjure a sense of warmth and joy. For some of us, the holidays exacerbate our pain and the glaring void of loss and loneliness that we attempt to mask for the sake of social graces and propriety.
Most of the time, we manage our grief in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. We may have days of newfound interior peace and even joy, while other moments or even days can seem dark and dismal. Grief can be elusive; sometimes it remains fairly dormant, and at other times it can snatch us in a wave of sadness, anger or guilt. If we are being honest, we often punish ourselves for the intensity of these emotions, because we delude ourselves that, once grief passes, we have fully moved on in our lives.
Grief is a very misunderstood phenomenon in western culture. There exists an unspoken expectation that grief is exclusive to the loss of a person through death and yet grief manifests itself in many forms over a plethora of causes, from death to divorce or loss of a career or even a dream. We grieve when life changes in a direction we did not anticipate or desire: when an unfortunate mishap or misfortune occurs that results in a disability, when a child is born with a genetic anomaly, when we lose a home to foreclosure, or a significant other ends a relationship. Grief is very real in all of these situations, no less real or noteworthy than when a person loses a loved one to death.
The holidays often remind us of coming home, engaging in laughter while sharing a savory meal with several generations of family. We don’t discuss with others our dread of facing the pain we experience while reminiscing of holidays past with people who have died, moved away or are estranged from the family. For some reason, it is far more acceptable and comfortable for us to lament of our trepidation over Christmas shopping, our baking lists and making travel arrangements than to share a sincere glimmer into the void in our hearts that can never be filled by another person or replaced by new life circumstances.
Let us participate in our grief by acknowledging that suffering is part of the human condition; oddly, it unites all of humanity, because no one is exempt from the experience of loss and sorrow. We are all touched by death, as well: our mortality faces us on a daily basis as we thumb through faded photo albums of Polaroid shots with our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom no longer dwell among the living.
I have found the importance of extending mercy to myself when grief chooses to pay me an unexpected visit; when I am gentle and kind to myself – as I would be to any hurting individual – I find that grief loses its power and intensity. It somehow becomes more manageable if I take the time to cry, to think, to wallow – but only for a short time. Then I tuck the memory or image in the recesses of my thoughts while noting the gift and beauty of what lies before me in the present moment. I do not push grief away or force it to leave. I do not ignore or deny its existence. Instead, I welcome its presence like a spontaneous visit from a neighbor.
The truth is that grief is a friend and a neighbor, not a stranger or (worse) a wicked protagonist. It dwells within us from the very first incident when we suffered the sting of betrayal or found ourselves jaded and cynical over time. When grief is welcomed rather than avoided, it empowers us to learn from it and to use it for positive growth and change.
When we become familiar with how we uniquely experience grief, there exists a particular rhythm that becomes fluid and calm over time within our hearts and souls. To permit ourselves to feel – even to feel seemingly intense, negative emotions – and to direct these feelings in healthy behavior (such as journaling, running, prayer, talking to a trusted friend, or pursuing a beloved hobby) can often elicit critical self-awareness that may potentially assist us in finding meaning and purpose for our pain. When we can apply value to our grief, we may be surprised to discover an authentic joy in sharing our stories with others or helping others to navigate their own grief. Then our grief metamorphoses from mere darkness into eternal strength that acts as a gift of light and hope to others who may be in the depths of despair in their own lives.