Updated: Feb 10
Written by Radonda Rowton, MAC, LPC
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Your tree is up and decorated. The stockings are hung over the fireplace, and your home is twinkling with Christmas magic. Holiday music fills the air, and everywhere you go people are spreading holiday cheer. This is ordinarily a joyous time of year meant for parties and celebrations with friends and family. There is an unwritten expectation of being jolly and full of holiday spirit. But for many who will be facing their first Christmas without a loved one, this season can also bring tremendous grief.
Grieving a loved one often comes up in a lot of my conversations during the holidays. I’ve heard people say:
· I feel completely numb to the joys of the season
· I’m simply going through the motions for my kids
· I feel like I’m about to experience the worst Christmas of my life.
· Although it’s been months, I still feel like I’m in a state of shock
I get it. I remember. I’ve been there. Back in 2004, I lost my dad in the month of June to a massive heart attack. He passed away on my wedding anniversary. My dad was larger than life. He was most often the loudest, most joyful person in the room at family gatherings, especially during the holidays. The idea of having his family around him was the thing that made him the happiest. And as I thought about ringing in the new year, the only thing I could think was that the coming year would be the year of holidays that would not include my dad. Our lives had forever been changed, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it.
For me, it came in waves. To my dismay, I realized that during those waves, my inner grief would take over my every thought. It was like living in a clouded haze of despair. Every potential joy was trumped by the fact that my dad was not there to experience it too. And as I was struggling internally with my overwhelming grief, everything going on around me seemed to take on new meaning. I remember feeling the need to manage my feelings, after all, my husband was a music director at a church and for us, Christmas was a huge, joyful celebration and it was our job to produce that feeling for thousands of people. I didn’t feel joyful and I didn’t feel like celebrating. I heard stories from those who felt the need to share with me their stories of loss. I listened to well-intentioned people tell me how that they understood exactly what I was going through. I was grateful for the sentiment, because I knew they meant well, but they had no idea how much that I didn’t want to be standing there listening to their respective stories. I just wanted to be by myself...anywhere in the world but where I was right at that minute. Because you see, the thing about grief is that it is often very personal and a little selfish. In my head, I knew these well-meaning people were dealing with their grief as well, but my heart felt it could not possibly match what I was feeling. Besides, they didn’t have to work on Christmas.
Because my immediate family also worked for a church, we made it a point to at least try to get together for Christmas, usually arriving on Christmas day or the day after. I honestly don’t remember much about our gathering that year. Without my dad, everything just seemed so much quieter. It felt as if we were merely pretending to celebrate Christmas, mostly for the children. The joyful, festive atmosphere was not as palpable as the exhaustion that I felt. I think each one of us was in our own private echo chamber of grief, because even within the same family, every person experiences their grief differently.
I remember talking to a friend, who had just lost her mom to Alzheimer’s between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. This story is being shared with permission. Her experience was somewhat of a mood enhancer for me, because she is one of the funniest people that I know who had the experience that nobody wants. She recounted:
“After ‘celebrating’ with my family, I had to work for the next two days. It was almost a welcome break from my daily turmoil. We went to Christmas Eve services, and we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner because I definitely didn’t feel like cooking. In fact, I think most of our dinners were from restaurants or fast food joints in the months surrounding my mom’s illness and passing. And to top off my already lousy Christmas, my youngest puked while my husband was putting her in the car following dinner. At first, we chalked it up to bad food. Then the following night while I was working, my oldest daughter threw up as well. Thank God I was at work, one of the few blessings in disguise at that point. Tis the season for stomach bugs.
We were all set to head up to my in-law’s in Minnesota in a couple days, but I was feeling like that might not be the best idea. On the other hand, I did not want to be the one to cancel Christmas for my husband, so he called his parents to see how they felt about the situation. They were insistent that we come regardless. To this day, I still can’t believe we went.
I’m sure you can see it coming already. Everyone was feeling OK on the drive up, but by the time we got there, I began to feel just a little off. I made a point not to kiss or hug or breathe near anyone when we arrived. We ate dinner and sat down to open gifts. After the first round of gifts, I looked to my husband and simply shook my head. Then I proceeded to leave the room and spent the next two days either in bed or kneeling in front of the toilet.
And the icing on the cake of my lousy Christmas? Several other people got sick as well. At least I could bring a small piece of my horrible holiday for everyone to experience. If I was miserable, then everyone should be as well, right? The interesting thing was that a little stomach bug did not phase my in laws one bit. They loved on me, took care of me, and filled a void in a way that showed me that they were willing to step up to the plate to be there for me because that is what family does.”
Now, of course, I’m not telling you about her experience to make light of her grief. I told it because I believe it is important for people to hear, especially this time of year. It is necessary to understand that not every person will be joyful during the holiday season. Maybe you know someone who will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Make them a meal, offer to watch their kids for a night, take them out for coffee, or just let them know that you get it.
If you encounter someone who seems grumpy, maybe a bit rude, or just not in a cheery Christmas mood, don’t be so quick to write them off as a Scrooge. Appreciate the fact that the holidays are not always wonderful, joyful and magical for everyone. And if you are like I was fifteen years ago, spending your first Christmas without the one person who enjoyed the season more than anyone else, know that it gets better. Yes, that first Christmas was extremely rough. But in the years since, I have found the joy again. The magic of Christmas returned through continuing to share holiday traditions with my family and remembering the best of my father and sharing those memories. Of course, every year a song comes on or a memory resurfaces, and I might tear up and take a moment to miss my dad. Although the holidays will undoubtedly never be the same, it doesn’t mean they can’t be good and joyful and magical once again. In time, with the help of people you love and trust, the memories will still be important, but the pain will become distant. They say that grief is the price you pay for loving someone. Yes, it’s a big price, but that love also contributes to the richness of who we are, so to me, it was worth it.