Before my husband died eight years ago, my habitual approach to events or seasons I dreaded was to try not to think about them and hope for the best. So in 2015, my strategy for facing the holidays …
Before my husband died eight years ago, my habitual approach to events or seasons I dreaded was to try not to think about them and hope for the best. So in 2015, my strategy for facing the holidays alone for the first time in 29 years was to put my head down, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and tell myself everything would work out fine. In other words, I pretended I could get so caught up in the magic of the season, I wouldn’t have time to feel sad or lonely. I told myself I might not even notice my husband wasn’t sitting at the holiday table, or that since he’d never really helped decorate the Christmas tree anyway, I wouldn’t feel sad doing it alone.
Looking back, this line of thinking seems embarrassingly unrealistic, and yet thanks to the counseling degree I’ve obtained since then and because of the clients who’ve shared their journeys of grief with me, I know now this kind of magical thinking, this denial, is a common aspect of the grief process. Many who experience loss lean into the holidays with their fingers crossed, determined to make it through by maintaining a positive attitude and trying not to think too much about what or who is missing. Those early years of being alone during the holidays taught me the hard lesson that denial is a terrible strategy for getting through the holidays when you are grieving.
The first Christmas after my spouse died, by the time I rang in the New Year, I felt like I’d been run over — I was hollowed out, exhausted, and I felt sorrier for myself and more alone than I had ever felt in my life. It took weeks for me to pick myself back up and find a way to believe that I was going to be OK on my own. I knew that I had to find a better way to “survive” the holidays in the future, and I’ve learned by experience and by talking with others that it is possible to get through the holidays with your energy levels and your ego state intact. However, it takes some thought and planning.
Last year, I lost another family member a few months before the holidays, but I took a completely different approach to getting through the season. While I won’t say the holidays were magical and full of joy, I will say that when they were over, I felt fine. This time around I knew better than to expect to be able to forget my losses — I knew I was going to be sad when I sat down at a table empty of two of my favorite people in the world. I knew I was going to feel alone, sometimes even afraid, without them. However, I no longer felt ashamed of myself for feeling sad and lonely. And I didn’t apologize for it. I took care to spend time with friends and loved ones who understood and accepted my sadness, and I gave myself permission to say “no” to holiday invites where I might feel the need to pretend to be happy if I happened to feel sad.
Another thing I’d learned from my first experience of loss is to pay attention to my energy level, and to protect myself from getting overtired during difficult times. Before the holidays began, I spent some time thinking about my holiday values and how to hang on to the things that mattered most. I enjoy the music and the messages at my church during the holidays, but I struggle to be in crowds when I’m grieving. I chose to attend the contemplative services on Tuesday evenings held in the Poker Church (the historic Episcopal Church in Cody). People are encouraged not to talk during these candlelight services, and the services emphasize music and meditation. I decided not to do my usual holiday baking, to cut back on my shopping, to forgo Christmas cards, and to instead save what little energy I had for quiet evenings with my daughter and her new husband and a few close friends and family members. I decorated a small tree with my daughter’s help, and she and I agreed to keep our shopping and gift giving to a minimum, sharing small, practical, and simple gifts.
It’s been a little over a year since my son died and more than eight since my husband died. I can’t say I’ll ever look forward to the holidays in the same way I did before their deaths. I think maybe I’ve just decided to turn down the volume on the holidays a little, to play its music lightly enough that I can stay connected to my bigger year-round life of which these celebrations are only a small part. And I’ve also realized that though Hollywood and Facebook suggest everyone but me is snuggled up in front of a fire in a beautiful home surrounded by loved ones and laughter, I am not alone. I miss my son and my husband, I often feel sad about this, but my story of suffering is a very common human story and I know I only have to look around any room I’m in to see others who are coping with grief. Somehow, knowing how many of you are out there feeling the darkness of these months and suffering a loss quietly, helps me feel stronger and less alone. I am sorry for your burden and your suffering, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share this common human experience with you. Together, we’ll get through.
(Carol Bell works with PLPC Foundations Counseling in Cody.)