This time of the year can bring grief to the forefront in ways that are jarring and monumentally uncomfortable. All the twinkling lights, and silver bells, the childhood parties, and festive gatherings are full of laughter and coziness. But if you’re struggling with a recent loss, or you’re ostracized from family or friends, or even if you’re experiencing just some run of the mill seasonal depression compounded by years of trauma, the winter holiday season can feel unnecessarily cruel.
Ever since I lost my mother more than 13 years ago, I have been wrestling with how to live life in a way that holds grief and joy in tandem. My mother died at 63 and then a few months later I found out my husband and I were pregnant for the first time. Those twin babies are now 12-year-old preteens, complete with all complexity and raging emotional ambiguity of that age. My whole experience of motherhood and caregiving has been an exercise in weaving the heartbreak with the celebration. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Some people lose their children or their spouses or partners.
A few weeks ago, we hosted a grief circle at the McElroy House. It was designed by several of our members (especially Cary who is excellent at honoring grief) who are wise enough to understand that the early sunsets and the cold, long nights are an invitation to rest and process the myriad losses that are a part of all existence. So we lit a fire and talked about grief, specifically, the grief attached to COVID and these last few years of trying to make sense of a world that seems off the rails. At the core of that gathering was this offering: take time to slow down and honor the loss and the sadness and the change. Don’t push it away. Don’t run from it. Don’t feel shame in it. Just let it exist.
I distinctly remember the Christmas after my mother died, how much the winter holidays cut me to the core. There was a sharpness in that ache — and in that cold wind — that I still can’t fully name. I kept asking myself how could I ever exist in a world where everyone was screaming joy when all I could find was such piercing loss and emptiness. I didn’t know how to pretend or blend in. I didn’t know how to hide my confusion. And I sure wasn’t ready to just “remember the good times.” Everywhere I turned was a memory I wasn’t ready to face. I know people meant well, but when they told me “don’t cry,” or “just find the happy memories,” all I could feel was that my grief wasn’t welcome or safe with them. And in that period of my life, when all I could feel was sadness, it meant I wasn’t welcome. So I pulled away.
I think one of the reasons that Christmas time can feel so very achy isn’t simply because we are immersed in traditions that remind us of those we have lost or days we can not recapture, though, that certainly plays a role. The bigger hurt is that the literal Earth shows us this is a time for introspection and slow recollection. Even the leaves and the trees and the plants and the bears hear that call. And they heed it without question. But do we? So, yes, it is time for all the presents and the warm ciders and the cozy laughter. That is essential. But it is also time for the sorrow and the ache and the cold and the wind. And when we pretend we can have one without the other, we cut ourselves off from an honest existence in this world. And what’s more, we may intentionally cut out some core parts of ourselves—and others off who need us the most.
So this is all to say, in these winter holiday seasons, know that deep, sharp, canyon-like grief is fundamentally a part of those twinkling lights and sharp air. Learn how to make room for all the layers of grief and, specifically, for grieving people. Invite the grief in. Invite the brokenhearted. Don’t run or hide from these days that get dark so quickly. Offer grief a welcome seat at the table during even the biggest of feasts. It is the most honest and real thing we can do.