The Grief that Stole Christmas

I’ll admit I’m a wee bit hesitant to write a post about the holidays. I’ve read a lot of articles about the topic and they usually come in the form of really neat checklists you can hang on your fridge. But anything besides groceries that you can turn into a printable with a matching pen seems shady to me… so I will try to share some honest thoughts without intending to suggest a particular “to do” scenario.

C.S. Lewis said “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Grief at Christmas can certainly take the form of fear. Why this day so much so compared to others? The obvious answer is that there are so many more memories attached to this day – we think about our loved one more and we miss them more. Looking deeper though, I think there are some other contributing factors.

The anticipation leading up to Christmas carries with it its own form of fear, I think because we are somewhat inclined to believe that Christmas is a supreme entity, deciding for us what joy or grief we will feel that day. We believe the day itself holds power. Ugh, Christmas is coming and it’s going to do terrible things to me… The reality is that Christmas itself cannot do anything to us – it is not predestining what events the day will consist of or the feelings that will be felt. The day is made of moments, like any other day of the year, which will be filled with the actions, emotions, choices, thoughts, and words that we will contribute to it. This has been a big realization; I’m learning to relieve myself of the thought that it should or will be hard just because it’s Christmas.

The second part of the fear is that, as much as we think Christmas controls us we, ironically, crave to control everything about Christmas (“Gasp, what!? But we ALWAYS have cinnamon buns in the morning. Who put out bagels??”). It’s the one day of the year that we can revert back to the comforts of our childhoods and bask in the familiarity of everything that is home to us. If you’ve experienced the melding of traditions in marriage, you have a bit of an idea of what it can feel like to fear the loss of this safe place; each spouse cautiously poking unfamiliar turkey around their plate and sceptically biting into foreign cookie recipes, not sure they’re ready to let something new in from “the other side”. Let’s face it, you never paid much attention to mom’s famous stuffing until your spouse plopped a new one in front of you – all of a sudden her stuffing means everything to you.

Grief is this in the extreme form. Things are changing outside of your control and you can end up grasping onto your traditions and memories even more tightly, perhaps afraid that they will be taken from you. The first year can feel especially desperate this way. I remember holding my breath, praying that everyone would carry on normally and try to make the best of it. I was open to changing outward traditions but held on tightly to the emotional traditions of feeling a certain way because it was Christmas. Please everyone make this a happy day. Can we dwell on what’s good? Appreciate each other? Not think about why it’s sad? These thoughts seem well and good, but they were a form of trying to control how the day went, without leaving room for everyone to be what they really were. Not everybody will be ready to try for normal, or even happy. Each person has their own idea of what needs to happen that day; each person has their fears and their hopes. It’s bound to be a bit confusing and chaotic until you learn how to fit it all together, and you may very well feel something similar to homesickness in the process. If I could go back to the first year, I would look myself in the eye and say let it be.

A huge lesson that came out of this was also how crucial communication is. In my experience, 90% of the grasping and fear stemmed from a lack of communication. As people can be a bit more… touchy on Christmas day, a sad heart might mistakenly be perceived as a grumpy one; a happy heart may be assumed an insensitive one…  Though it may seem un-Christmasy or awkward to do so, telling each other where you are at can create a new, different sort of safety net at Christmas. It may very well be all you can do to stay grounded in the chaos.

For me, year three of Christmas brings with it a very deep realization of love – I’m ready to exchange large amounts of it with my family and friends. It is perhaps the first year where this feeling is more predominant than the fear and aching. It’s still tempting to hang on to everything as it was when mom was here (what a painful battle) but I am seeing that this isn’t what will restore health and joy in the long run. Christmas is changed. It can be incredibly hard to cope with the feeling of loss that accompanies this thought, but I don’t want to give up Christmases full of joy in order to hang on to it either. It would be tragic to let grief steal this holiday from me forever. I strive to accept the change, grieve the loss, and make room for the new. I imagine it will take several more years of fumbling through Christmases to achieve this.

The good news is there is no such thing as “wasting” a Christmas if things don’t go as planned or if what you meant to accomplish wasn’t accomplished. The truth is that these first messy Christmases really just need to be had so that we can build on them to get to better ones. Unfortunately, we only get once a year to practice, but they do get better (if you want them to).

The last thing I’d like to say is that our fears of Christmas and other occasions can be made worse by the fact that they are the times we are expected to be the worst off. It may be hard to go against this assumption, but Christmas may not be the worst day for everyone. I’ve found it important to remain open to the possibility that Christmas may in fact be full of joyful moments – and each year, it really has been.

I send my love to all of you as you prepare for the holidays, whichever number this might be for you. I would also love to hear about your own experiences during this time. We have so much to learn from each other, so please feel free to share your thoughts here.

I will leave you with this little piece of Christmas, as sometimes remembering the simple things can bring the most joy:

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10 thoughts on “The Grief that Stole Christmas

  1. Really glad to have read this just as I am looking forward to Christmas like I’m looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.. trying not to get tangled up in negative expectations – we will see how it tumbles out on the day!

    1. I like how you say “how it tumbles out”… that’s pretty much how it goes, right? I send you a hug, and I hope it’s a day full of unexpected warmth and peace. Either way, you’re not alone!

  2. Jennelle, your words are full of wisdom, and have touched me deeply. Thank you for sharing. I think your blog is an amazing gift to your readers. Your honesty, and the spirit in which you share your heart and your journey, is beautiful. I truly wish you a Merry Christmas.

  3. a missing tooth, a now redundant Chrismas stocking – it’s been a turtle neck day!!! Your post could not be more timely!
    Love you
    Pam

  4. I like your use of the C.S. Lewis quote; I did as well on one of my posts and felt it was extremely profound because the fear makes everything seem so daunting. You’re right though… clinging to how Christmas used to be won’t bring joy in the long run but we do cling to these memories and traditions like a life raft. From some of the books I have read recently they suggest that as a family you need to decide how Christmas will be this year. Is this family in agreement of doing it as per usual so nothing changes or does the majority feel they want to carve out some new tradition? But that is a difficult conversation to have (goes back to your crucial communication) because some people are adament about Christmas traditions living on until the end of time!

    I really enjoyed your perspective on that grief can only ruin Christmas if we let it. You are absolutely right. That being said I certainly am dreading the holidays and honestly hope to avoid it as much as possible. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! I agree with you (and the books) that it can make all the difference to be on the same page as a family, picking and choosing what you will hang on to and what you will let go of. There are some things I will hold on to forever and pass along to my future children that came from my mom. Those things are so dear. We’ve tried a few different “strategies” on Christmas – the first year we went to the cabin like we always had (that was hard!), and the second year we went to Hawaii – something totally different, but a place really close to my mom’s heart. It was really nice to get away and feel something new. Every Christmas changes, it’s such a process! I will be thinking of you and wishing you the energy required as you face Christmas. I see your strength in the words you write, I hope you feel it in large doses during the holidays. You are not alone. XO

  5. Thanks for the great post. It really hit home for me. I just celebrated the fourth Christmas without my mom. Even though I made Christmas dinner using all of her receipes (I cooked everything for the dinner/dessert), even though we went to my parents’ house like usual, this Christmas couldn’t have been more different than Christmases past. I know now it will always be this way and it makes me sad. My dad is getting remarried in May and I’m ok with it. I know he will always love my mom and that, like me, he thinks of her every day. My mom would not have wanted him to spend the rest of his life alone. But the “blending” (my dad’s word) of families this Christmas was really hard for me. It didn’t feel like Christmas at all. We didn’t do things like we usually did and it made me sad. The only joy I felt was watching the kids open their gifts. The sadness from the day is really hitting me now. My dad keeps commenting on what a great day it was, but it wasn’t for me and I can’t tell him that. My mom was Christmas for me. She was the one who made it special for everyone and put her loving touch into everything she did and made for the holidays. It will never be the same. You mentioned traditions and now, in what was my mom’s house, her traditions are gone. But I will carry on many of them for my kids. The impact of her loss still runs deep and I am crying as I write this. Three years have past since my mom died. Even though things have gotten easier, I will always miss my mom and always love her. Maybe it’s time for a change and next year we will celebrate Christmas at our house. I just don’t know.

    Kathy

    1. Thank you so much for sharing Kathy… My heart feels much empathy. It’s such a journey to figure out how to do life again, especially things like Christmas. When the person who is lost was so much a part of creating occasions and how they made you feel, it can seem like those occasions died along with our loved one. It’s hard to imagine sometimes that we will ever get them back. I know that you will find what Christmas is to you again one day… no matter what other people in your family make it. Your mom is inside of you, she will show you the way, in time… My heart and hugs are with you, and if you want to chat more, please email me at write.afterwards@gmail.com. I have also experienced the blending of families after my Dad married again, so feel free to share your thoughts!

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