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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Afterwards in Living Colour!

First of all, I was extremely flattered to be approached by Second Firsts (www.secondfirsts.com) to be part of the 30 Days of Hope project. Christina Rasmussen is a speaker, therapist and coach who, in addition to her own blog, writes for the likes of Huffington Post and was nominated as the Leading Mom in Business by StartupNation. This project is part of the launch of her first book, Second Firsts: Live, Laugh, and Love Again. She asked several “inspirational” men and women to, over the course of 30 days, share a piece of their story with her followers. So, here’s mine! Feels like I’m stepping out of a safe, shady box to have my face and voice and words projected through video – it was a practice in vulnerability! Good thing I feel safe with ya’ll… Thanks for your constant and amazing support blog world!

Home Builders: Creating a new safe place after loss

This post was written for The Grief Toolbox www.thegrieftoolbox.com.

ImageLike many children, I was under the impression growing up that Home would forever exist as I knew it – a stationary, unchanging bubble of safety to welcome me back any time I needed.

When I lost my mother to a brain aneurysm, I was 26 years old and still operating out of these assumptions. It is natural after all, to hold on to such safety nets as adults until something pushes us beyond them (I still crave those safety nets). A gigantic proportion of grief is really a search for Home as we knew it. No matter how old we are, we want to know that somebody will take care of us; we want to know that there is a completely recognizable place that exists. Even if we don’t get along with our parents, they offer us things deep down that we may not realize, be it as simple as a sense of familiarity when we walk through their door.

Losing Home as we knew it is tragic; it leaves us vulnerable, lost and afraid, feeling like a child again. It is frustrating to search over and over for that which we are missing – there must be some apartment, some vacation spot, some friend’s house that will offer to me the Home I crave! But after my own tiring hunt that has lasted nearly three years, I’m beginning to see what it really means to be an adult: it is to be a Home builder. Unfortunately, factors such as not being able to return to the familiar for a Turkey dinner, or knowing that your children won’t experience your original safe place and your amazing loved one, make the process of building your own Home more painful and slow. While in most circumstances you have time to develop blueprints and move gradually from your childhood Home to your adult one, losing a parent can feel like you are suddenly standing on top of a pile of wood and nails without a backup shelter.

Right now my husband and I are literally setting up a new home for ourselves. It feels good; it’s progress. However, I know that for me it’s going to take a renovation of mind, body and spirit more than it will paint and furniture. It’s going to be a long-term project; I will have to build and tear down and rebuild and adjust as life develops. I will need to add new rooms as I have children, as my career fleshes out, as I try to become the calibre of woman that she was in different life situations.

It can seem almost as hard to re-enter a phase of normal, home-building, happy life as it was to leave it, and unfortunately, the first step involves letting it sink in that Home is gone – letting it hurt. It’s almost a separate grief than that of missing a loved one and it is just as painful. But once it really sinks in, I believe there is a freedom to be felt that relieves the necessity of constant searching and allows all energy to be put into the positive, constructive process of creating a new safe place.

For me, it is getting time to stop searching and to start building. From one unschooled architect to a group of others, I clumsily arrange my building supplies and think of you who are surveying the same sort of chaos. You can do this. I can do this. It is likely to be slow, messy and less polished than the normal building process, but it will happen. It must, because the Homes we build are those that will bring comfort, familiarity and love to others in our lives now and in the future. Our own foundations must be poured and passed on.

Stand up or get off the train

Thank you Krista for featuring this post on your blog, it’s an honour to be invited into your journey. You can find Krista’s blog here: Words to Heal the Pain.

We were somewhere in the middle of a 17-hour train ride in India. It was more economical than a flight to our next destination, and besides, who doesn’t want to lock themselves in a tube of foreign culture complete with poorly-maintained, sticky-floored squatty potties?

I steadied my feet on the bouncing floor, held on to the door handle and popped my head out to take in the sight of lush green foliage and tiny specks of field workers. India constantly delivered a feeling of paramount beauty sprinkled with a hint of something could really go wrong here. It was perfect. During those minutes I stood gazing out of the train car, the thought ran through my mind, if something really were to go wrong right now, I would be okay. The realization was accompanied by a wave of peace that settled over my bones – I felt the most alive I have maybe ever experienced feeling.

What allowed for the peace and aliveness in that moment was the absence of fear. I have rarely before or after felt so okay with life being out of my control. Instead I have felt like I’m standing on a train car grasping the handle with two hands, and maybe wrapping a leg around for good measure. I’m too busy planning for all the things that may happen before the next stop to lift my head and catch the reflections of a beautiful world.

What I’m saying is, I’m scared.

Fear has grown slowly and steadily over the past few years. I’m realizing that I have darting, nervous eyes when I walk alone to my car; in the back of my mind I think that I’m bound to get sick; I count on facing a sudden giant roadblock in life; I am scared of encountering another traumatic situation or being required to have enough energy to handle something else big and painful.

This is no way to live. Even if these things may happen, the fear will suck dry every moment of good had before or after.

The only time I will know whether or not something bad will happen in the future is when my life is over. There is no possible way to live if I want to know what happens next before I’m there. It is imperative that I choose to fight fear.

It hit me this week, as I got caught up in all the good things ahead for Adam and I, that though I have lived for two and a half years subtly guided by a sense that something bad is going to happen, only surprising, couldn’t-be-planned-by-me, unexpectedly brilliant things have happened.

I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed the full impact of those things in the moment because of fear – however, I refuse to let the f-word keep me in fetal position any longer. I am lifting one finger at a time from the handrail. I am standing up tall and steadying my feet for a better view. I am holding on for the ride, whatever it brings – hopefully this time not a case of heavy food poisoning and a bomb scare, but then again, those are the things that make a 17-hour Indian train ride more epic than other train rides.

I’m going for epic.

The daily reminder on our headboard!