Last week's article, "Facing The Holidays When You Have Lost a Loved One" seems to have struck a nerve. So, I'd like to go more deeply into this topic this week. While grief is an exquisitely private matter, in order to move on, most of us need someone to bear witness to our truth in grieving. Too many people silently suffer with their grief, while putting on fake happy faces for those they love. Ironically, this usually serves no one. It not only prevents loved ones from knowing that you are suffering, but it deprives you of the comfort others might offer. If this sounds familiar, I am not suggesting you unload the depth of your grief on your loved ones, but denying your own suffering is not the answer either.
I needed help with my grieving and was lucky to find that our local hospice offers free grief counseling to those who have lost a loved one for the first eleven months after the death. It wasn't that I needed someone to advise me about what to do, but rather that I needed someone I could tell my truth to -- the good, the bad and the ugly. I needed someone to bear witness to me, stripped naked of all pretense moving through one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I needed someone to do that without judging and rejecting me or telling me that I should do this or that or the other thing -- I needed someone's compassion. I needed another human heart to know and to care about me and about what I was experiencing. For me, that didn't need to be a loved one. It was easier to share my truth with a professional stranger.
Another source of support came to me from religious and spiritual teachings. As an ecumenical minister, I do not espouse any particular religious tradition, but have drawn great comfort from many different traditions. For example, I was raised Christian, and have often called upon the phrase "I caste my burdens on the Christ within and I go free" to help me through those experiences I don't seem to be able to bear alone. (If the word "Christ" doesn't work for you -- substitute another word or reference point that does.) This action reminds me that I have resources that I often forget to draw upon. By opening to the presence of the divine, I can often surrender to that which is beyond my ability to understand or cope.
Buddhist teachings have also informed my understanding of life and death. They have helped me to see death not as a moment, but as an ever present process of transformation in the life of every sentient being. Each word or sentence I write is born and passes on. Its life continues only when it touches the hearts and minds of others. Similarly, each moment of our lives, each day, each meal, each relationship, each flower is born, lives and eventually dies -- except in our memories.
Last week, one reader emailed me about how she and her daughters have found a way to bring the joy back into Christmas after her husband and their father died unexpectedly a year and a half ago. She wrote that as they headed into the holidays last year and again this year, they didn't feel like celebrating and found no happiness in the idea of buying each other gifts that none of them needed. So, they decided to create a new family tradition and chose to anonymously find a local family in need through a social service agency and help give them a happy holiday. Having the chance to help families going through some very hard times has brightened their own holidays and, as she wrote,
Doing this in my husband's memory has given us a positive way to honor this immensely kind man and loving, devoted father. It also gives us some badly needed perspective and reminds us that we need to be thankful for what we had and what we still have and that, as much as it stinks that they've lost a wonderful father and I've lost a loving husband, we each had a loving and close relationship with him, happy memories, a lot of laughter and a lot of life lessons that we will carry forever.
I think the process of grieving, particularly during the holiday season, eventually brings us to the realization that it is a matter of personal choice to either die inside from our grief or to lift our hearts up in gratitude for having loved someone so deeply -- for having been blessed by his or her presence in our lives.
So many people try to avoid grieving and attempt to carry on with life as usual. But there is no "usual" after a dear one has died. We need to grieve. If we don't, if we push the grief deep within us and refuse its expression, it will deaden us to the rest of our lives. Then there are two deaths, not just one. And, if you really think about it, that's probably not what your loved one would have wanted for you.
There is a funny thing about human nature that we take a particular comfort in knowing that other people suffer too and that some appear to carry bigger burdens than our own. And sometimes when we are feeling particularly sorry for ourselves, we encounter a brilliant brave soul who inspires us to raise our heads high as we carry our own mixed blessings of life. While not specifically about the holidays, this video is a magnificent reminder of the resilience of the human heart.
No matter whether our burdens are heavy or light, may we all be kinder to ourselves and each other this holiday season.
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