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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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: