The Grief that Stole Christmas: Facing Holiday Fears

{Photo: Afterwards Blog Christmas}

Thank you to the Grief Toolbox, Grief Healing and JR Writes Things for featuring or suggesting this post.

C.S. Lewis said “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” This can be especially true during the holiday season. Here are three big ones I faced during the first few Christmases without mom.

Fear #1: Christmas will hurt me

We are somewhat inclined to believe that Christmas is a supreme entity. Ugh, Christmas is coming and it’s going to do terrible things to me. The reality is that Christmas is made of moments like any other day that will be filled with our own actions, emotions, choices, thoughts, and words. Christmas itself cannot hurt us.

If you are like me, you have probably experienced a “random grief attack” somewhere like the grocery store aisle. We see mom’s favorite can of soup. We have a mini-meltdown. We dry our eyes and move on to frozen pizzas. The thing that makes Christmas sadness different than can-of-soup sadness is our anticipation of it; our anticipation produces fear which is often worse than reality. While the soup attack takes a few moments to get over, we curse ourselves by dwelling on Christmas like the end times – paralyzing our ability to let grief flow through us in the moments it naturally comes to us.

There is no medicinal quality in trying to determine “what Christmas will do to us this year” – it’s important to let our emotions come as they are, no matter what day it is. This also means that we don’t have to be sad because it’s Christmas. How about we just throw out our calendars and feel sad whenever we do, okay? Let’s focus on what’s happening right now.

Fear #2: Things won’t be the same

We are terrified for things to be out of our control on Christmas Day. It’s the one day of the year that we can revert to childhood comforts and bask in the familiarity of everything that’s home to us. But we ALWAYS have cinnamon buns in the morning. Who put out bagels??

If you’ve experienced the melding of traditions in marriage, you have an idea of what it can mean to fear losing this safe place; each spouse cautiously pokes unfamiliar turkey around their plate or sceptically bites into a foreign cookie recipe… 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.

Grief is this, in the extreme form. You don’t want anything more stolen from you than what has already been stolen. Fair enough. But because fear is so incredibly draining I’m going to say this: Maybe, especially the first year, maybe letting go of the stuffing recipe for now is okay. There may be more important places to direct your emotional energy that day. You can come back to the stuffing next year when everyone is ready – the recipe will still be there; your memories will still be there. I promise, as difficult as it is, you are not forgetting or disrespecting your loved one if you let things change this year.

Fear #3: My loved ones may not behave how I want them to

As people can be a bit touchy on those first Christmases, a sad heart might be perceived as a grumpy one; a happy heart might be assumed an insensitive one, and so on. I remember holding my breath, praying that everyone would carry on normally and try to make the best of it. I clung to the emotional traditions of Christmas. Please everyone make this a happy day. Don’t disappoint me. Nobody be sad. These thoughts were a form of trying to control others and left no room for people to be what they really were. Not everybody will be ready to try for normal, or even happy – they each have their hopes and fears lingering under the surface. And this doesn’t mean you should feel ashamed if you are happy.

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. But if I could go back to the first year, I would look myself in the eye and say let it be. Let them be. And communicate with each other about what you need – the more, the merrier (literally).

As the years go by, Christmas brings with it a restored depth; the fear and aching take a back seat. They still exist in different forms, but they do not define the season. For the sake of my emotional health and Christmases future, I have had to let go of and grieve Christmas past. It’s not easy to leave memories where they are and build new ones, but it’s necessary – and it takes several years of fumbling through Christmases to achieve this. We have time. The good news is there is no such thing as “wasting” a Christmas if things don’t go well. The truth is that these first messy Christmases 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 we want them to).

I send my love to all of you as you prepare for the holidays, whichever number this might be for you. May your fears be comforted and love be felt deeply in your spirit.

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13 thoughts on “The Grief that Stole Christmas: Facing Holiday Fears

  1. A friend suggested that I read your blog about Christmas and surviving the first one. My mom passed suddenly on October 21 and the anticipation of the season scares me. We always did the meal together for both sides of the family. I don’t think I am ready emotionally or physically to do it, so told my sister in law it’s hers to do. I am scared to reveal real feelings as others have presented that they have moved on in their grief and that I should too. I am grieving on my own timeline and yes it is slower as I was strong for weeks for my dad and am just starting to really go through the five stages of grief. Thank you for sharing your experiences and feelings. It does help to here some strategies of someone who has gone through the same experiences. Thanks
    Trelaine

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read, Trelaine. Your comment really moves me because those emotions come strongly to the surface, still, when I hear you talk about facing a first Christmas.

      Though I don’t know you, I know enough to say this: Trelaine – you are not “slow” in grieving. My dear, do not let those around you make you feel like you are behind. If they do, they are either not being honest with themselves or avoiding reality. I’m in year four – I’m still sad. I will always be sad. I will always be grieving. It’s okay! It’s reality.

      Give yourself a hug, cry whenever you want to, and know that grief is circular and not linear – there is no start, middle and end (which may counter the theory of the 5 stages of grief…). Many of us try at different points in time to push it all away and pretend it’s gone, but it will be back. Take your time and love yourself at whatever point you are at, you deserve that!

      If it helps, here are a few more words that may mean something to you at this time:

      https://afterwardsblog.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/you-are-not-a-grief-ninja/
      https://afterwardsblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/traveling-expos/

      Take care and I wish you the best this Christmas, I hope it is whatever you need it to be. Thanks for connecting.

  2. Oh how I love you Jennelle and how your words are like a sweet melody. Dec. 4th with be the 2 year anniversary of Nichole passing, Dec. 24th the 3rd anniversary of mom’s stroke, and the 26th the 13th year of loosing my dad. So many holes have been punching into the “magic” of Christmas for me and my family. But you are right, Christmas changes, it grows, we change, we grow. The sadness is there, but we start to smile again, we start to laugh again, we start to realize it is okay to make new happy memories and still hold tight to memories of those we have lost. You are constantly on my heart and in my prayers. We know its one day at a time, one step at a time but the goal is to keep moving forward no matter how slowly we may crawl on some of those days <3

    1. Hello Steph! Thank you for your sweet words…

      It is hard to believe that life can pile all of these voids into one month – it seems incredibly unfair. I’m sad for you, and I will be thinking of you during these winter days. I hope, as you said, that both of us can experience those new memories, smiles and laughs this year. Love you friend.

  3. My dad passed away March 28, 2013 of a massive heartattack at the age of 62. That morning replies in my head more often then I would like it too. That Easter is a blur for me I can’t recall what we did that day. This Thanksgiving, and Christmas coming are the first holidays without him. I felt okay on Thanksgiving until my brother showed up, he seemed miserable, and I am worried to see what Christmas will be like. I was 21 when my dad died, and turned 22 in September I miss him everyday there is no doubt about that, but im the youngest of my siblings, and my mom leans on me the most of all, she cries to me and always tells me the things that happen throughout her day that remind her of my dad. I smile and I listen to her because she needs that, and she always wants to do things so I go with her so she isn’t alone, but I feel worn out. I attend a local college, and I am finishing up my associates degree in December, and found a part time job in my field, but I decided to finish for now with college because of my mom. I love my mom, but it is hard on me also I was a daddy’s little girl, and a spitting image of him. I cry when I’m alone or not around family because I feel as though I can’t cry infront of anyone. I think of little things that remind me of my dad and want to cry, it’s been 8 months, and I know that my life will never go back to the way it was with him here, and I live my life to the fullest since his death, and I never take the little things for granted, but it still hurts my heart.
    sorry for the rambling, I came across this and needed to write.

    1. Megan, thank you so much for stopping by and thank you for sharing your thoughts here. Please do so anytime. I’m so sad to hear about your dad, we are not supposed to be without a parent at 21. There is something so difficult about being shoved into adulthood in the blink of an eye – the natural transition is stolen from us. It is especially hard to feel like we cannot abandon those who are left around us – I really feel for you. If you have a similar personality to me, it is our natural inclination to drop everything and be the one who helps the others survive.

      I think it is great that you want to help out your mom. However, if I may, I also want to say something based on my own experience. Even if it is the hardest thing in the world to do, hang on to your life. It can really feel like you are being a monster if you step back from your remaining loved ones to pursue your own things, but it is necessary. Our loved ones WILL survive and find their way, just like we have to. Your mom will carry on. It is good and healthy to listen to and love each other, but it is crucial that we do not spend the entirety of our energy filling up the other – even our remaining parent – while our own life is drained. You are worthy of a full life; losing your dad will change it, but it does not mean you should lose it. I feel passionately about this. In the long run, if you focus on continuing to pursue your own life, you will be a more solid rock for everyone else.

      Megan, you deserve to cry as much as your mom does (this does not take away from how much you love her). You deserve everything that your life will be as you heal and grow. Take care and good luck. XO

  4. I just came across this, and it was exactly what I needed. I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer in March of this year, just as I was finishing up treatment for breast cancer (Mom hung on until she knew I was going to be okay). A few months later, I lost my aunt, who was one of my very best friends and confidantes. Then, a few months after that, this past November, I lost my stepdad, another of my dearest friends, to a heart attack.

    I am grateful to God for the wonderful people I have in my life, including those I’ve lost. I have been wonderfully blessed in countless ways, and try to remain focused on that, but sometimes the absence of someone is so heartwrenching that it takes my breath away. I find myself bracing for the next round – my dear beloved great aunt, who is well into her nineties, and my father, who is only 66 but lives on 50s style diner food. Hopefully, his good genes will see him through – his parents ate like that, and saw their nineties. Even my doggie, who is a grey-muzzled senior (I’m not equating the loss of a pet with the loss of a parent, but anyone who has loved and lost a pet knows the pain I’m talking about). With each loss of a cherished parent and/or older relative, the world seems a little bigger, colder, and scarier. Almost everyone who loved and valued me as one of the ‘kids’ (I’m 43) is gone, and there is no love like that ever again. I have cousins but no siblings, and no children. I’m trying to balance between reaching out to others and having my own reflective time, and helping people / bringing comfort to others and allowing my own grief and sadness to flow as it will. The last thing any of these dear people would want is for me to get stuck in misery, or to bury feelings that will just find other, destructive ways of expressing themselves.

    I’m accepting the wild roller coaster of feelings, from near despair (calling their house to listen to my stepdad’s voice) to pure happiness (standing in the sun on the mountain ridge where I ran off to live after Mom died) as being well within the spectrum of normal, but the sense of isolation that comes with grieving is fatiguing. It’s comforting to come across something that reveals the same feelings in others, and to know that I really am not alone in experiencing all of this.

    Thank you for what you do, for sharing so much, and for providing a space where those of us who have experienced this wrenching loss can find solace in community. I’m forcing no expectations on Christmas, knowing that it will never be what it was. It’s my prayer for all of us that Christmas surprises us with unexpected little pleasures, and no demands for us to be anything other than our genuine selves. I’m expecting another beautiful icy day on the mountain; beyond that, who knows?

    1. Donna, thank you so much for sharing your story here. It is heartbreaking to hear the voids you are up against. The world certainly does become a scary place – I can’t imagine how true this is for you after facing such a succession of losses. It really resonates with me when you speak of losing those people who loved you as “one of the kids”. The pain and loneliness of becoming a “lone adult” (no matter how old you are) can be overwhelming. I just read a quote from one of my friends that said “The older I get, the more parental supervision I want”. He was saying it as a quip, but I think that can be true. No matter how old we are, we want that person who is “above” us to take care of us and support us. We can gather affirmation just by hearing a caretaker or older person answer our phone call; just by knowing somebody outside of our self is looking out for us, whether or not we take them up on it. I find that the removal of this security is one of the hardest parts.

      Thanks again for sharing, I hope you visit again as I really enjoyed and connected with your words. Take care Donna, I hope Christmas was the best it could be.

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