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Working through grief this holiday season
In the wake of my oldest son Anthony’s suicide, I found that normal situations were new situations, because traumatic loss changes everything — especially the holidays. I had a game plan for how they were going to go. Then Anthony died, and I had to come up with a new plan. I was not prepared for how different everything would be without him.
The first Thanksgiving after his death was a roller coaster of trying to act like everything was normal amid all the things that made that impossible. I was fine the entire day until the moment when I was putting up the leftovers and I asked myself why there was so much food. Did I buy a bigger turkey? Then it hit me: Anthony was dead, which meant that there was a lot of the bird left over that he normally would have eaten. I ended up sitting on the kitchen floor crying. Nobody had told me to buy a smaller turkey because the guy who ate 14 plates was not here.
The holidays for grieving people can be difficult, either from the unexpected meltdowns or from the energy it takes to keep it together. The absence of your person will be felt by everyone. I feel like nobody told me this, so I want to be the one to help you and your loved ones prepare for the ups and downs of grieving this holiday season.
My family has two small children who find comfort in remembering their daddy, while the rest of us choke back tears behind the smiles to help them do that. But at some point, we all need to cry. Sometimes we all find our space. Other times, if we need to cry with someone, we do that. If those little girls need to cry, I hold them in my lap and let them. Because this is all unfair, and so we experience this combination of crying about that unfairness while being thankful for everything we do have, including each other.
For Christmas, we go to a Chinese buffet, because that was our favorite thing to do as a family when my children were growing up, and by Christmas I am wiped out emotionally. I learned quickly that we had to carve out new traditions. This requires me to be honest with my feelings, and this means I need to know what my feelings are. If I feel low, I say so. If I am happy, I take advantage of that and do things with my family. More than anything, I enjoy every moment, even if I am enjoying it in bed watching movies with them. This is the first year that I feel up for a Christmas party. But I am treading lightly, because that could change at any moment. I accept that.
More than anything, I have come to appreciate the time the Church gives us in the season of Advent to focus on slowing down. We focus on the goals for the next year as we prepare our hearts for the birth of the Christ child. During November, we pray for the souls of the dead and hear all the readings about Jesus coming again. All of it is a reminder that we can enjoy the present time while preparing for the life to come. The central theme in all of it is hope.
If you have experienced a loss that makes the holidays difficult, take your time and take care of yourself. Sit by the fire with a book and some hot cocoa, or go to every Christmas party you can if that is what makes you remember that life is good. Do not succumb to the idea that you have to live up to expectations.
If you are expecting to have guests at your holiday dinner who recently have experienced a difficult loss, create a quiet space somewhere with a chair, blanket, snacks and tea or sodas. A space they can sit for a minute if they need it to gather themselves. Tell them in private that you have made that space and they are free to slip away to it anytime they need to. Even if you do not know someone is having a hard time this holiday season, I think it is helpful to make this space anyway and let people know.
More than anything, spend this time looking at Baby Jesus in the manger, because he was born to save us, to walk with us and to let us know that hope, love and grace have a face — his face. Even in the sadness of grief, he is there with us, helping us put one foot in front of the other.
Leticia Adams writes from Texas.