Sometimes it’s easy during the holidays to assume that everyone else’s December is 100% merry and bright. But, of course, the reality is that many people grieve in December because it’s their first holiday without a loved one or their first holiday after a break-up or divorce, or they thought they’d have a baby by now or be married by now.
The very thing that makes the holidays so meaningful for many of us can be exactly what brings up painful memories and disappointments.
I’m no stranger to big feelings stirred by Christmas. When I was a kid, I spent Christmas Day in a hospital two years in a row when my dad had cancer. December is also the month of his birthday and the month he died. And I’ll never forget decades later, having my first Christmas post-divorce without my son with me because it was his father’s turn to have him that year.
Now, I weep more often in awe of the blessings in my life than the losses, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have to acknowledge the important anniversaries during the holidays, and to spend time remembering and grieving.
I’d like to make a couple of suggestions, if you’re either struggling with their grief, or if you’re unsure how to be sensitive to a loved one.
Make no assumptions
Just as we all have wildly different personalities and life experiences, we all grieve differently. Never assume that what you’d want in a situation is the same as what someone else would want. Just because someone is grieving doesn’t mean they don’t want to be invited to sing Christmas carols.
Some people want to share their memories and emotions; some don’t. Just ask.
You can say something like, “I know this is your first Christmas after your mom died—do you want to talk about it? If you do, I’d love to hear one of your favorite Christmas memories with her. If you don’t, I understand.”
One person might be looking for a break from the seriousness and sadness and want to do something goofy and childlike. Another person might be aching to share how they are feeling with a sensitive listener while decorating cookies.
If you meet someone who seems like a Scrooge, remember they may be struggling with a challenging anniversary you don’t know about. If I do know the painful circumstances a friend is going through, I personally err on the side of at least acknowledging that I remember. No platitudes or clichés. Just letting them know that I see them and I remember this might be a hard season.
(If you’re looking for a meaningful gift to send someone going through a rough season, consider the gift box I created for that purpose called the “you are not alone box.”)
Make time to remember and share
If you are the one processing a loss during the holidays, set aside time to do something intentional to give yourself space to feel and grieve. It doesn’t have to be something serious.
Maybe you invite a friend to go see a holiday movie with you that has your aunt’s favorite actress in it, and you laugh and enjoy the film. I’m a big proponent of journaling with a big cup of tea, but let yourself think outside the box about what would be special and helpful for you.
Remember: many people are experiencing both the delight and magic of the holidays, and also the sadness of someone’s absence. Both these things can exist. And you’re not the only one. Consider sharing with someone how a certain tradition reminds you of your uncle, and that you miss him.
If you know what would be help you feel supported and comforted, let people know. If you don’t know, that’s okay too. Just be kind to yourself, and find at least one person to share with.
As Tsh says in her Advent Guide, “Advent is a season of inward and communal reflection.” Don’t feel pressured to put on a happy face and pretend everything is okay if it isn’t.
I can promise you you’re not the only person you know processing a loss this year. May this be a season of real reflection and connection this year.