Getting Through the Holidays

by Rebecca Crichton

I facilitated grief support groups for many years. I had a few rules for groups where people were grieving the deaths of loved ones. I made it clear that we would not engage in what I termed Comparison Suffering Shopping. One person might be mourning the death of a 90-year-old parent from natural causes, while another was reeling from an accident in which several people died. Both were grieving. Both needed the time and permission to grieve for their loss. There are no winners in the grief game.

Starting in November, each grief group would turn its attention to how to manage and survive the holiday season. In our hyper-commercialized world, we start hearing Christmas carols and seeing bedecked trees as the cats, princesses, Darth Vaders, and Batmen roam the streets and malls, trolling for treats. 

For people experiencing grief related to death, and for those who are managing serious conditions or caring for others, the holiday season can feel oppressive, demanding, and judgmental.

The main message, sometimes blatant, other times more subtle, is to be cheerful, joyful, and grateful. Those who find themselves unable to demonstrate those feelings, for whatever reasons, quickly get the idea: Don’t bring us down. Either get on board with the celebrations or take your negative feelings elsewhere. At the very least, take a break from being so ‘heavy’ until the New Year.

I used to greet people when they came for the weekly grief group. Once, when I uttered the formulaic, “How are you?”, one of my regular group members confronted me: “How do you think I am? I’m here to cry for two hours while I grieve my mother’s death. Don’t ask me how I am!”

I felt chastened and uncomfortable. I also heard her and thanked her for the reset. Glad you could come, I learned to say. Welcome back. Glad to see you. Thanks for coming. Innocuous but still friendly, these greetings didn’t require the grieving person to say the expected and untrue: “I’m fine.”

Grief support groups are not just for hearing the stories and honoring feelings. They are places where people whose identities are shattered and whose sense of self diminished can help each other and themselves by sharing how they are managing their losses. It is not all sad.

In fact, gallows humor, sarcasm, and expletives are frequently welcome in settings where we know and trust each other. Sometimes there is the laughter about what people say that demonstrate how clueless and uncomfortable they are with another’s pain. There are always stories about how people assume they know how you feel. Or how someone needs special acknowledgement for their response to your loss. One woman told how a friend attending the gathering after her husband’s funeral asked if the plant she had sent had been received. The grieving woman said she thought she had seen it. “Show me where you put it,” her friend said. “I chose it especially for you!”

“I didn’t know where the damned plant was,” the widow told the group, “or if I had seen it or what had been done with it. I told her I was too busy at the moment and excused myself.”

The stories kept coming: “You’ll meet someone you love again.” “You can always have another baby.” “Lucky you have three other kids!”

To be clear, most people don’t intend to be insensitive and hurtful. They think they are helping. They just don’t know to talk about loss, and as a society, we don’t help.

For the upcoming holidays, I hope you will be honest with yourself and tell people what you need. It is okay to admit that you don’t know if you can be at some of the gatherings, or if you’ll be able to stay for long if you do go. Practice being honest that sometimes you can be with other people, and sometimes you can’t.

We are all learners when loss is on the table. Those who grieve are inadvertent teachers for others. Those who want to help and support family and friends need to learn what that help looks like. We are both unique and similar in navigating the land of loss. What is guaranteed is that we will all be there sooner or later.

For some specific suggestions, check this month’s Tip.