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Grief During the Holidays

by Christina McKelvyCaregiverJanuary 18, 2023View more posts from Christina McKelvy

This article was previously published by Collective World at Click here to read the article on their website. 

It is okay not to feel Joy when you hear “Joy to World.”

At this moment, as I walk through the stores and hear “Joy to the World,” I have a visceral reaction: I shudder. I want to walk out of the store and roll my eyes. I am not a grinch. I love Christmas; it is one of, if not my favorite holiday. Loved ones gathered, melodies playing, lights twinkling, all bring about a warmth. However, this season, that warmth has dwindled a bit as it will be my first holiday season without both of my parents. Hearing the songs singing “Joy to the World” or “Deck the Halls” is a constant reminder that I am feeling the wrong feelings. I am supposed to be “happy” during this time and I am not supposed to be sad. If I am, I am supposed to place that grief in a neatly tied box or turn that grief into joy. At least during this time of year.

It is not the songs’ faults of course, but these are examples of the messages I and so many others often receive. We are told that it is better to be joyful. Enjoy the holidays. That we must spend time with family and friends because it will make us feel better. All the hard feelings that we are experiencing, we are to put aside. Deal with them later.

These are the wrong messages.

As a therapist, I walk my clients through experiencing these same hard feelings. Noticing it in their bodies, thoughts, and actions. Many of us are uncomfortable doing so, not just because it is atypical in our society to allow ourselves to feel these hard feelings, but because we have been told that it can make others feel uncomfortable. I don’t care about your discomfort—OK I do, but why do we attempt to shove our feelings aside and fake a joy that is not there, to make others and ourselves feel comfortable? This only further pushes the grief down until it oozes out into other areas of our lives, typically in unhealthy ways.

I experienced a loss, and I am grieving this holiday season. Many others are too. It is okay to grieve—fully grieve. I am going to lean into those hard feelings when they come up, and allow myself to experience the sadness, the anger, and the despair. I will allow myself to experience memories of joy, happiness, and warmth as well. I will allow myself to feel all the feelings. I encourage you to do so too, not shove it aside, because it will only pile up and fall, shattering around you.

This holiday season, if you are not wanting to spend all your time with others, carve out time for solitude to be in your own presence and connect with yourself. Of course, balance that out by spending time with those that support you, ask and allow help if you recognize that you need that. Do be open if someone recognizes that in you, but expel honestly to them about your grief so your supports can easily connect. If you are not wanting to be “joyful,” listen to carols, or see the lights, don’t. It is okay.

The holidays can recreate a memory of your loss in every tradition. Christmas and Thanksgiving are times when we spend with others, but for some of us, those others are no longer here. We are filled with memories of their presence and reminders of their being when we participate in activities or traditions—we feel that emptiness. It is okay to feel that. It is normal.

Often, we are told that we are supposed to put a timeframe on our grief or set it aside. Instead, the message should be to embrace grief and allow us to feel whatever feelings come up for us.

We all grieve differently, who is to say how you grieve is wrong? We all process loss at different intervals. It is okay to mourn the loss in your way.

My mother used to spend time with me and my in-laws every Christmas. This year she will not. It will be jolting, different. I am going to have to navigate this new world without her. Her absence will also bring up memories of my late father and the knowledge that I am now an adult orphan—this is a strange feeling. The family unit I held so dear has disappeared.

I am not going to cancel Christmas, but I am going to lean into my grief when it surfaces. If I feel joy, I will lean into that too. But I am not going to feel guilty about not being happy. I am going to allow myself room to slowly wade through those difficult feelings.

Remember to be near loved ones—but have time alone if that is what you need. Allow yourself to feel sadness and joy, whatever comes organically to you. Embrace your loss, remember your loss, and take care of you.

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