'Good Grief' in the Holidays

Posted on October 15, 2018

Holidays make us painfully aware of our loved one’s absence and our broken heart while all around others are enjoying and rejoicing. It is generally true that the first one or two celebrations of each holiday without the deceased are extremely challenging. The world is celebrating and we are weeping. The spirit of the season and our broken heart collides. How do we reconcile this; honoring the holiday while still honoring our broken hearts? Like the words of the poet, Tan Neng, “Joy and pain can live in the same house. Neither should deny the other.” Somehow we must use the holidays as an opportunity to hold both joy and sorrow. All the books, speeches, and seminars on grief boil down to one basic essential concept; people need permission to grieve in order to heal. How can the holidays become an opportunity to honor our grief and our loved one; to let others know what we need, while offering us an opportunity to do some things the same and to do some things differently? This is the journey of grief.

Where do we begin? We can start by letting others know we need permission from them to grieve, to talk about the deceased, say their names aloud and bring them to the holiday table or celebration. I remember well the first Christmas after my brother died when we were all gathered around the beautifully set holiday table abundant with all the special dishes trying to be happy while feeling deeply my brother’s absence. No one acknowledged him. My sister-in-law came to me in the kitchen and said, “Please, can we just say his name and talk about him?” Rather than trying to protect one another, we talked about him, saying his name, sharing pictures and stories. It was a great relief, allowing us to share both joy and sadness. I was so grateful she let me know what she needed and she taught us how to grieve - together.

Getting permission from others is tough but giving oneself permission can be even harder. Give yourself permission to do it different this year. Do only what your heart and body can handle. You should feel free to decide what you can and cannot do, then talk with those closest to you about your plans. Are you up for cooking the Thanksgiving turkey this year, for decorating, buying the usual Christmas gift list or traveling “home”? Many are not. One mother had lost her daughter in the summer and simply did not have the energy or desire to decorate the big Christmas tree as usual. This is a time when “the way you’ve always done things” can be changed. After much thought, she and her husband decided to honor their deceased daughter by getting a small table top tree and decorating it with all the bracelets and charms they had given her over the years. She gave herself plenty of time to hang each bracelet, each one reminding her of a special memory and story of that time in her daughter’s life. It was a bittersweet time of precious memories filling her with both sadness and joy.

Give yourself permission to be comforted doing some things the way you always have. This honors your loved one who is no longer with you. One family found comfort and healing in their traditions of making tamales every year. Every year three generations gathered to work together, enjoying each other and the finished product was plenty of delicious tamales.

Grandma died in the spring and as the holidays rolled around, Grandpa was keenly feeling the loss of his wife; especially when it was time for the tamale fest. Yet he couldn’t bear to think of his family not gathering to make tamales so he called them all together and they made tamales in honor of Grandma  They laughed and cried and tried to figure out how to make the masa just right, since that was always Grandma’s job.  She also was the chief overseer to make sure everything turned out right. His report was that the first year the tamales didn’t turn out so well, in fact he called it a disaster, but they all were glad they came together and carried on Grandma’s tradition. It inspired them to learn for themselves how to make the tamales just like Grandma’s.

The annual tradition still continues and the second Christmas the tamales turned out to everyone’s satisfaction. The third Christmas they were so good, they had requests to sell them. This family found energy and healing by simply being together; honoring their wife, mother, and grandmother by carrying on her tradition of making tamales…..I hope you can discover your own special way of using the holidays to heal. Give yourself permission to do what honors your heart and the season. Your holidays may not be happy, but I trust you will be comforted, and experience joy as a by-product of your grief and the gratitude in having loved.

Celeste Miller, MA
Bereavement Coordinator
Porter-Loring Mortuaries
San Antonio, TX



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