grief and the holidays

This has been a unique holiday season for me. It has been joyous in many ways: filled with love and laughter, delicious food and warm conversations.  More than any other year, I have savored and treasured my time with my family and dear friends.

But also, this has been the hardest holiday season for me, because I have been missing my friend Celine a lot. She used to come home to Los Angeles from Paris for the holidays, and we would “meet halfway” in Malibu for dinner. I keep catching myself thinking that I need to call her, that we need to schedule our yearly tradition. I can’t quite wrap my head around her being gone, even now, eleven months since her death.

me and celine bart station

The holidays are a complicated time. Everywhere around us, commercials and holiday tunes are telling us to be joyful, to be cheerful, that this is the most wonderful time of the year. I love the warmth and connection of the holiday season, and the messages of gratitude and love that abound during this time. {And that we should all try to continue throughout the year!} But I think it is oversimplifying and counterproductive to attempt to squeeze the holiday season into a one-size-fits-all box marked CHEER. I believe it is important to honor your feelings, all of them, by feeling them authentically. If you try to shove sadness aside or quash it, the sadness will only come back stronger. If instead you let yourself feel your sadness, breathe into it, and let it go, then you are acknowledging life’s complexity and recognizing sadness as what it is: the other side of the coin of happiness. They are both products of a beautiful thing: LOVE. And love, even in grief, is something to celebrate.

Maybe, like me, you are grieving a loved one who is no longer with us. Or maybe you are grieving a broken relationship, or a lost job, or a foreclosed home, or something else. As I have learned in grief group, grief is an interconnected web: when we lose something or someone important to us, we often feel renewed grief for past losses we have experienced. It can be painful. It can be overwhelming. But it can also be meaningful in its own way.

Here are some tips that have helped me this holiday season:

Take some quiet time for yourself. The holidays are a notoriously busy time. You have a plethora of things pulling at you, wanting your attention: presents to buy, holiday parties to attend, gatherings with relatives, baking and cooking to do, traditions to uphold, etc etc. When you are grieving, your internal well has run dry. So give yourself pockets of time amidst the craziness to fill yourself up. Curl up and read a book that nurtures your soul. Cook a simple, nourishing meal for yourself. Get a massage. Take a nap. Forgive yourself and be gentle with yourself.  It doesn’t matter what you do to fill your well back up: just do something that makes you feel happy and at peace.

Connect with others who loved the person you are grieving. I always feel better after talking with my friend Holly. And this year, instead of sending my usual Christmas card to Celine, I sent one to her mom and brothers. I wrote about my favorite holiday memories of Celine, like how she taught us to string popcorn and cranberries to decorate our Christmas tree in college. If things are this difficult for me, I can’t even imagine what these weeks have been like for her family. My heart breaks just thinking about it. Writing them a note to let them know they are in my thoughts and prayers was a small gesture that brought me comfort, and I hope brought a little comfort to them, too.

all the ladies soph year

Write a letter to the person {or thing} you miss. In addition to sending a Christmas card to Celine’s family, I also wrote a card to my dear friend, just as I have done every year since we met in the college dorms. I told her what has been happening in my life, what I am excited about in the new year, and how much I miss her. Coach John Wooden used to write a letter to his late wife Nell every month after she passed, and stacked them on her pillow on their bed. I am keeping my letters to Celine in a special box on my bookshelf. Writing letters makes me feel connected to her. As my minister says in grief group: just because someone has died, does not mean our relationship with them has ended. Our relationship lives on, just in a different form.

Buy yourself a gift from the person you have lost. If they were still with you, what would they buy for you as a gift? Go buy that for yourself, wrap it up, and stick on a card from that person to you. Ever since Celine died, and especially in the past couple months, I have been feeling the urge to be more crafty. Celine was incredible at seeing the possibilities for treasure among what other people might throw away as trash. An amazing fashion designer, I also remember her making jewelry, belts, bags — she could take old pieces and make them new again. Inspired by Celine, this year I have bravely tried lots of new recipes {spaghetti squash! homemade granola! cilantro pesto!} and I have felt the urge to try crafting new pieces out of old scraps of things, like a braided rug I am sewing right now out of old T-shirt strips. I bought myself some Mod-Podge from Celine this Christmas because I want to try out some decoupage projects, and I know she would approve!

me and celine halloween

Share stories about the person {or thing} you have lost. There is so much joy in stories — they are how the past lives on in the present. However, the important thing to note about this is to be mindful about who you share your stories with. Our culture has interesting, often harmful, ways of reacting to grief — namely, expecting that people should be “over” their grief in a certain amount of time, when in reality grieving is a lifelong process. Some people might be uncomfortable with grief or not know how to react when you share a funny story about the person you miss — they might not understand how you can laugh about a person while still missing them. For me, I know that it is painful to talk about Celine with people who did not know her or know how important she was to me; I hate the feeling of her becoming a brief “cocktail party tidbit.” All it took was one experience of the other person blindly moving on to the artichoke dip while I stood there, breathless under a fresh wave of grief, for me to realize how important it is to guard my heart when it comes to Celine. Now, I only open myself up with people who make me feel safe and listened to.

Do something kind or fun or spontaneous in honor of the person you lost. Maybe this means an act of charity like volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating toys for kids in need. Or perhaps you could honor the person you are grieving by doing something zany they would do that feels out of your comfort zone: going rock-climbing or dyeing your hair or trying zumba for the first time. I am growing out my hair to donate to Locks of Love in honor of Celine, and every time I glance in the mirror and notice how long it is, I think of her and my heart fills.

me and celine

Honoring my true emotions has given this holiday season a new type of beauty for me: less shiny tinsel, and more authentic joy. Yes, I have learned that joy and grief are intertwined. My first real comprehension of loss has also meant that I understand gratitude much more deeply. Everything I hold dear is that much more precious.

fam at beach

Sending love and gratitude for all of you this holiday season, and beyond. I hope this post was helpful, and I would love to hear any of your tips in the comments section below. And I am always just an email away, if any of you are grieving and just need someone to listen. We are here for each other.

3 thoughts on “grief and the holidays

  1. Pingback: gifts from 2015 | Day-By-Day Masterpiece

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