December 2012

Holiday Musings

As I write this the day before Thanksgiving, the holidays are bearing down on us like, oh I don't know, a deadline, that "I didn't need" extra piece of too-rich dessert, or the scowl from the adult table when we got too rambunctious with our cousins at the kids' table. So much to plan, do, and consume smushed into such a small period. It can be high-demand and high stress with dinners (what to have), parties (who to have and how much to consume), family gatherings (some of us moved out or away for a reason), purchases, crowds, bustle, bills, travel, and expectations great and small. As a child, the time period between Thanksgiving and gift unwrapping felt like another whole three-month season in itself. It was sooo long. My brother and I practiced racing from our bedroom to the front room to be adequately prepared for Christmas morning. As adults, the time from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day can be a blur of activities and lists which spin and exhaust.

There's another side of the holidays, too. There are dinners (good times), parties (great fun) and family gatherings (important reconnecting). It's a time of giving where generosity and compassion can take center stage. As the weather cools, our hearts warm. We give good wishes to strangers, unnamed neighbors, and that person in the office down the hall whose name we can never remember. Our rituals and traditions remind us of who we are, from where we came, and even why we are here. In the midst of the glitz and superficial wrappings, there can be a deep sense of meaning in our families, work, and individual lives. There are times of reflection where we think on what was and is not, what we will take with us into the new year, and what we hope to find there. And there's the rub for us grieving people: someone is missing from this present holiday season and will not be coming with us into the new year or any other.

How is it that the world goes on, these holidays go on, as if nothing incredibly important has happened? Someone we cared about, someone central to not just this holiday time but to our whole lives is gone, so how can the holidays roll in and on as if nothing has changed? Are the holidays usually stressful? Well, they can be especially stressful when we're grieving. How about all the good stuff-the family gatherings, parties, traditions, rituals? Their meaning and comfort may feel elusive now. We knew the person died and is no longer here, at least in body, but the reality of the empty chair, the less crowded kitchen, the one less name on the gift list, and a changed family story is a cold reality, indeed. What can we do?

We can accept that the world and the holidays are different and that it is very hard. Pretending otherwise does us no good for we know the truth of the matter. We can fix the same meal, but it won't be the same. We can do something totally different and it really won't be the same. Either one is OK-whatever gets us through without hurting ourselves or others will work.

We can also remember, on purpose. It's not possible to forget in the big picture, so we may as well remember. Memories are interesting things. Especially early on, memories can be sharp-edged and cut us deeply as they remind us of how things were but will no longer be. As time goes on, however, memories can lose their sharp edges and become warm and soft things that we want to hold close and cherish. The holidays can be like this. The first few after a death can feel cold and cutting, a gauntlet of demands and us yearning for January 2. Later, the holidays can feel more like a trusted old quilt full of memories, past and present, warmth and comfort. They can still have the power to remind us of who we are (and whose we are), from where we come, and why we're still here and living.

We can also not be alone. There are too many alone during the holidays, and it need not be this way. We need each other as the winter comes with its chill and long nights and we face the passing of time from one year to another. And so we have dinners, parties, and family gatherings. We are made to connect, made to reach out, and made to belong. Sometimes we do the reaching, and sometimes the responding. We can say "yes" to both. Can there be a better way to honor the memory of one to whom we were and are so connected than by making or remaking a connection during this crazy, special, demanding, meaningful time of year?

Greg Adams
Center for Good Mourning

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