“I always thought it was strange when people said the holidays were harder after a death. I thought, ‘Why would you miss them any more on a holiday than on any other day?’ It turns out – they were right.”
My best friend of 20 years sent me that over text the other day. Her brother passed after getting diagnosed with cancer just a few months earlier. And a week after burying his body, they faced their first-ever holiday without him.
The truth is – the holidays can hurt after we’ve been hit with grief. But why? If we already miss our loved ones more than we ever thought we could endure on any given day – how can the thought of a holiday make it harder?
Here are 10 simple reasons holidays hurt the bereaved:
1) Holidays are all about togetherness.
From commercials and ads to Hallmark specials on TV, to the time away from work and school, it’s impossible to escape the ingrained belief that the holidays are meant to be spent together with your loved ones.
It is this focus on togetherness that makes your reality feel more real. You will never get to be all together on this earth again. Even as you focus on everyone who is here — your living children, partner, parents or siblings — it never replaces the emptiness you feel for the one who is not.
While the non-bereaved are counting the seats at the table, you know one chair will always be missing.
When others are joyfully sending out holiday cards with photos of their complete family, you are left wondering how to include your loved one in your family photo — and if you should sign their name on the card.
While those you know fill their houses and relish in the happy chaos, you find that no matter how full one’s house is, it will always feel a little too empty.
Togetherness will never quite be the same again. And nothing makes that more obvious than a holiday dedicated to the idea of it.
2) There is an expectation that you will be merry.
Have you ever noticed that every greeting during a holiday begins with “happy” or “merry”?
In our everyday lives, we’re allowed to have days when we are grumpy, irritable or just plain hurting. We can go out in public and most strangers will leave us well enough alone. But during the holidays, strangers everywhere wish you to be merry or happy. And of course, the courteous thing to do is to smile and wish them the same.
But what about when you don’t FEEL merry? Grief, the dictator that it is, does not operate on a predictable schedule. While there may be moments you feel merry and bright, grief may cause your heart to ping between all the other emotions of loss like a pinball machine. Those of us who are grieving know this is normal. It’s just that when everyone else expects us to feel happy, we can feel like we are letting others down just by experiencing the normal emotions of grief.
3) It’s just so busy.
Grieving takes up a ridiculous amount of brain space. Making simple decisions can feel like Herculean tasks because your brain doesn’t keep tracking back to your loss. And yet the holidays require us to make so many extra decisions. Who will we be buying presents for, and what will we get them? What meals or dishes will we bring and what parties will we bring them to? What will we do for family pictures? How will we honor our loved one this holiday?
And then, you actually have to DO these things.
Furthermore, your schedule may not align with your heart at any given moment. Perhaps on a good day, you said yes to attending a party. And when that day comes – you are overcome with sadness, or despondency, or numbness. You can’t wrangle joy into your heart – so you are left either attending and pretending, attending and wishing you hadn’t or bailing altogether.
Unless you make an intentional effort to slow down, all of your time and energy can easily go toward keeping up with the holidays, leaving very little left to grieve your loss in the quiet of your heart and home. And as we know, that time to grieve is necessary for our survival.
4) People are everywhere.
And I’m not just talking about strangers. I’m talking about your husband’s boss’s wife at a company party, or your third-cousin twice removed at your family gathering. (I may have made that up. I’m not sure there is such a thing). At any rate, there are all these people who are close ENOUGH to you that you need to make small talk. And they are people who may know just enough to make it awkward to ignore the fact that you are grieving, but not close enough to make that conversation comfortable. Is there anything more exhausting than making small talk when the loss in your life feels anything but small?
Plus, being out and about seeing so many families who appear to be a happy and cheerful and WHOLE triggers grief over your family who may not be happy or cheerful, and is definitely not whole. I’m not trying to sound like Scrooge here. But just having so many people, from parties to crowds, constantly surrounding you is enough to turn the most hardcore extrovert into a hermit when they’re grieving.
5) Holidays are for making memories.
Elf on the Shelf. Advent calendars. Cutting down and decorating the Christmas tree. Baking Christmas cookies. Opening presents. Taking photos — photos — endless photos. Kids wearing matching jammies and staying up late Christmas Eve. Wrapping presents. Opening presents. Hanging stockings, lights or wreaths. On, and on it goes. There are a million traditions, and each one is aimed at making and preserving memories.
But when your loved one is gone, that first holiday is a punch-in-the-gut reminder: There are no more memories you can make wtih them. All you have already created is all you will get, and that will need to last you the rest of your lifetime. For those who lost a child in pregnancy or in childhood, this can be especially difficult as there are few (if any) memories already made that you can draw from during the difficult holiday season. If you can’t make memories during the holidays with your loved one, and if you have no shared memories with them to draw from, what is a person to do during a season bent on celebrating memories?
6) There are so many triggers.
Everywhere. While Christmas cards and family photos are beautiful and a such a nice token to receive, they also can trigger a lot of sadness. (Or anger, numbness or despondency. Or a million other emotions that come with grief.) The radio plays the same songs over and over, songs you may have memories attached to with your loved ones. Turning on the TV, opening Facebook, walking through the mall, getting your mail . . . any of these normal activities are ripe with grief triggers. This makes the holiday season is a particularly rough minefield to navigate.
7) Milestones matter.
When you are expecting a child, it is easy to imagine all those milestones: their first smile, first time walking… and yes, their first Easter, Christmas, Hanakkuh, Diwali, Thanksgiving, etc. When a child is lost in pregnancy or in early infancy, every missed milestone is a fresh heartache for their family. It’s not that the firsts are the only milestones to matter — but they DO matter. And bereaved parents grieve that loss.
8) You’re expected to count your blessings.
This is similar to the expectation to be merry, but it goes deeper. Those who are really close to you should understand why you can’t be jolly when your heart is hurting. However, they may unwittingly place an expectation on you to exude gratitude for what you do have.
People confuse grief with ingratitude. They forget that it is entirely possible to be extremely thankful for everyone you still have in your life, and all the “blessings” you do have — while at the same time, mourning the loss of your loved one. In order to put their own hearts at peace, some may actually tell you to “count your blessings.” As though you owe them anything. Truth is — you don’t. And you know what? I think those who have lost actually have a significantly higher appreciation for all that has remained in their lives.
If you want to count your blessings, by all means, do so. Just don’t feel you need to do this to make someone else happier with your grief.
9) Christmas especially is hard because it is about new life.
For parents who are mourning the loss of a baby, Christmas can be especially hard. The narrative of Christmas for many is to celebrate a newborn baby. There are mangers and nativity scenes everywhere complete with glowing halos. I’m a Christian, and yes, I understand the joy that baby brought us. I understand the hope. But I also understand that singing “Away in a Manger” can be incredibly painful after a miscarriage. I understand the tears that form when the little newborn baby is at the front of the Christmas Eve service cradled by his mother “Mary.” I get how triggering it is to see images of a virgin pregnant Mary.
Yes — babies, and particularly this baby, are wonderful and deserve to be celebrated. But they also can make someone dealing with infertility or the loss of their own baby particularly sad.
10) So many things are missing.
Things you can’t help but notice. There’s a Christmas tree brimming with presents, but you see the ones that are missing. You hang stockings, and your hands reach for the one that’s not there. Your yearly holiday letter is missing updates from a member of your family. The photos you take never feel complete. There is an empty chair at the family feast.
There is something — someone — always missing. And the holidays magnify that loss in a unique way so that the gap between what is normal for everyone else and what is your new normal grows. It creates a dissonance, a discord, a distress.
If you find yourself aching for that someone this holiday season, I want you to know — you are not alone.
Wishing you a gentle season of missing and remembering. And hoping you will find some measure of peace on earth this holiday season.