Wrestling With Grief At Christmas

Losing someone is tough. Losing someone close is tougher. Facing the holidays for the first time without them is the worst. This past month, the thought of the upcoming holidays has brought many tears and anxious nights lying awake, wishing I could just fast forward to June. How can I be happy for Christmas? How can anyone in my family be happy? Questions like this have stuck in my head, circling around endlessly at times. But I’ve come to a few resolutions as I head into this holiday season for dealing with my grief, accepting it, and even embracing it.

I lost my mom this past August, and I never fully realized how much she played a part in even the most mundane details of my life. It’s amazing how many times a day I’m faced with some question that I need to ask her: “How do I cook chicken?” “What am I doing with my life?”  “Can I hem a dress without sewing?” Mom! Help! She was the type of mom who literally could do and did do everything.

I’m not going to lie, Thanksgiving this year was “difficult” to put it politely. There were times when siblings were frazzled by organizing meals and who was using the oven at what time. There were times when people wanted to talk about mom, but instead didn’t. Grace before we ate was a choking, awkward pause in which we all wanted to say something but just couldn’t find the words. And to be brutally honest, I wanted to hide outside on the porch for most of the night. I will say, of course, that our family was wonderfully successful in celebrating this holiday, and we all embraced each other with love and comfort in a way only a family with shared grief can.

So as the days of Advent continue onwards towards the birth of Our Lord, I’ve turned to him countless times in prayer to ask Him how we are meant to deal with grief. More particularly, I bring him my anxieties about Christmas. Here are just a few thoughts and resolutions I have made to help.

Tradition is important, but be open to new changes

I can remember a time when I would throw a tantrum if any tiny detail about our family’s Christmas tradition was altered. The tree had to go in a certain room, we had to have poppers on our plates, midnight Mass was the only option, and Heaven help us if we ever didn’t have mini wieners as an hors d’oeuvres!……When you lose someone so important, you realize just how little all of those details matter.

Family traditions are a wonderful thing to hold on to, but the key thing to remember is family. Although it may help to hold on to as many traditions as possible, because they truly are special, also be willing to let some of them go. Be positive and open this year to trying something new, perhaps even starting new traditions. Remember that you are entering into a new time. Embrace life, the holidays, and forming new family traditions together.

Drink only for camaraderie, never escape, and only in moderation.

This is a subject perhaps only some will relate to, but it is something I know I have learned. It’s a habit that can be entered into lightly, but have such negative consequences. So often I’ve gone towards an event with the mentality of “booze will make it more bearable.” Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong. Using alcohol as a means to pass time or “make things more fun” can be fun, but often backfires.

Excessive alcohol, at least in my experience, leads to periodic memory loss, temperamental behavior, and often finished off with a full serving of hot regret. Here are the reasons to avoid those things; one often likes to remember family parties, fighting with people is generally frowned upon, and I for one would prefer to live my life with no regrets. So here is my suggestion instead. Alcohol is an occasion to share with others in camaraderie and toast companionship. Use it as an occasion to show that brother the new beer from a brewery that just opened in your town, or to bring your dad a nice bottle of wine he would never buy for himself. Celebrate the birth of our Savior, ring in the New Year! But do it wisely; make memories you don’t want to regret.

It’s okay to just be sad

One of the most difficult things to accept is this — when you are grieving you will be sad, and your loved ones will be sad too. I’ve asked myself again and again and again, “How can we distract ourselves this Christmas?” “How can we fill every quiet time with distraction?” “What if it gets too quiet or there aren’t enough people around to keep us busy?”…..The very simple answer is, those are not the right questions to ask or worry about. Saint Mother Teresa said, “True love hurts.” We hurt because we love and that cannot be bad for it is one of the things that makes us human. Instead of finding distractions from sadness, embrace sadness.

I’ve always been afraid to show sadness, but I am slowly learning that it is good to express feelings. It allows you to be vulnerable to the love of those around you, whether they are family, friends or colleagues. This holiday I know one of the greatest difficulties will be to see my family’s sadness. But let them be sad and let them ask you for help. They need you as much as you need them. No matter what, it will all be alright for “Earth hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal” (St. Thomas More).

Take any opportunity to help someone else this Christmas

During my college days, I developed some moderate depression with periodic anxiety attacks. It even got to the point where I had to take a semester off from school. During that difficult time my mom told me something I will never forget; I even had her words written on a post-it that I kept next to my bed in my dorm room. She said, “Whenever you feel sad, go find someone to help.”

To paraphrase her explanation of this, she said that we all have things that make us sad, scared or depressed in life. But the only thing that will make us feel better is not to dwell on those things. Instead, we should take our suffering and put it to good use by serving others. It’s the only way to give our suffering purpose and meaning.

To this day, that advice from my mom has stayed with me. She lived every day of her life helping others. Over the holidays, and for the rest of my life even, I hope to always follow her advice and mimic her in any way I can. It doesn’t matter how big or small the act is: volunteering at your parish, helping someone load groceries, visiting a friend who also may be suffering a personal tragedy; helping someone else will help to get outside of personal grief by turning towards others with love.

So have all of my anxieties about Christmas gone away? Not exactly; I still have my moments. But I know now that there are certain things you just shouldn’t be anxious about. I have so many blessings in my life. And what is the only thing that worrying will do? It might make you miss out on something you’ll never want to. Grief is a long road with lots of bad turns. But there are good times out there still. The holidays are a time to create the good times. Fill the holidays with love, hope, joy, prayer, and plenty of the good memories you shared with the one you have lost, because they are still alive in your heart.

image: Roman Winter Blizzard by Province of St. Joseph / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Catherine Hieronymus graduated from the University of Dallas with a degree in English in 2012 and has spent the past five years teaching at Trivium School in Lancaster, MA. Her courses include Literature and Composition, Latin, Ancient History, Science and Theology.

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