Holidays After Loss: A Love Letter

Other people's happiness is more difficult to avoid than other people's pain. Seeing the holidays swirl around you means being hurt all over again.
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My Dear,

I know this is going to be a tough holiday for you after everything that's happened this year. I can't say anything that will make it easier. Words, powerful as they are, can't change what you've had to live through. But I think it's important to tell you how much you mean to me -- even if I have to use words both threadbare and weak.

You know I'm accustomed to relying on a funny story or a clipped comment to make my point. It's scary to leave those safety nets behind and walk out here on this emotional tightrope -- my sense of balance and gift for being centered isn't all it used to be. I'm worried about making everything worse. But when I think of you waking up and getting through each day, knowing how much courage the simple gesture of getting out of bed takes, I am emboldened to take at least a small leap into unfamiliar territory and leave the funny stuff in the corner -- just for now.

I know lights and celebrations and songs are not on your list this year.

You'll witness them because you have to -- they are unavoidable. Other people's happiness is even more difficult to avoid than other people's pain. Seeing the holidays swirl around you means being hurt all over again.

When you've lost someone, every holiday you go through serves up fresh visions of what "might have been" and that's a killer. It's like being in an rattling old car, driving past houses in an affluent neighborhood, where the windows are all lit up, framing glittering parties. Or at least quiet, cozy evenings shared by lovers or families. And you're just out there, metal-cold, going nowhere, afraid of breaking down, dreading the idea of knocking on one of those doors and asking for help. You aren't expected and haven't been invited; what help dare you ask for? Even when you have been asked, it can be just as tough. Maybe you want company in theory, but find the actual presence of well-wishers unnerving.

Here's where life gets tricky. Few of us know how to offer kindness or generosity to a friend who is in pain or in trouble. Should we say something or leave the subject alone? Should we keep offering invitations, even if they are not accepted, or does that seem pushy and overbearing? Should we insist on coming over, dropping by, checking in, or is that invasive and bullying? If I were you, I'd be thinking "Are you kidding? You're looking for a script? Do I have to deal with this stuff, too, on top of everything else? Don't you think it's just a bit much to expect me to take care of you, tell you what to do, make decisions about how I should be treated?" It seems like a bad joke itself, this fear that other people, people you love and respect, now have in your presence.

It makes being lonely and at a loss even tougher. I remember.

I remember my outrage at the awful normalcy of other people's lives; I remember feeling walled up inside myself, feeling the shortness of breath even as I added to the height and depth of my separation from others. I remember spending the holidays by myself, not because there weren't invitations, but because I recoiled from emotional pity and spiritual hand-outs more than isolation and sorrow. At least these last two were old companions.

But I also remember that often unexpectedly, people could -- sometimes with the simplest, most commonplace phrase -- lift me out of myself. There was the December in England when, at the last minute, terrified of how far despair might drive me, I took the train to the house of a girl I knew from college. Never having met me before, her mother nevertheless did not hesitate in her welcome. No one expected much from me, but I was grateful to be part of the noises and gestures of everyday life. I'd almost forgotten that I once knew how to celebrate myself.

Every single day life is a privilege, a luxury and, finally, the most extraordinary gift in the world. Because of what you are going through right now, you (as I) will always know this. These next few weeks will be hard, but you are loved, even if we who love you seem awkward and silly.

Together, we ask everything that is good in heaven to be kind to you next year.



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