Grieving at the Holidays

Someone knee-deep in grief needs space and time to make sense of his or her feelings. There's no room for deadlines or expectations, particularly at the holidays, and on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.
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When I learned that my brother had ended his life, I stood clutching my then-4-year-old son's hand. I crumpled to the hardwood floor outside his play room, grasping his tiny frame like a life raft.

I yowled.

"Get up, Mommy! You're laughing, right?" he asked, confused.

When I called my sister, I managed only her name. "Lisa." The wretched yowling swallowed my words. She too was startled, unsure if it was laughter.

On the day we buried Jim, I placed a flower on his casket and inched through throngs of people to my mom's grave. I lay prostrate, grass sticking to my sweat-and-tear-soaked face. Watching from a distance, my son scrambled to a grave and plunked himself, face-down. He felt safe following my lead, he later explained.

In hindsight it seems trite: The forlorn sibling falling to the ground in agony. But my emotion wasn't contrived. It was mourning out loud, indicative of deep love and profound loss. It might also be called hard grieving, something Kay Warren recently wrote about:

In traditional cultures throughout the world, the louder the mourning, the greater the love shown for the deceased. You might counter that that's not the way Westerners handle grief. You are right, of course. But acknowledging this leaves me wondering: What are we supposed to do with our feelings when the people we love end their lives violently? How are we to feel when someone we love is murdered? When those dearest to us are ripped from our arms through an accident or illness? Are we comfortable with hard grieving at first, but less so when the grief doesn't stop after a few weeks or months or years?

The piece is about grieving at the holidays, how it's more painful when others ignore tragedies and loss. Warren lost her son to suicide in 2013. She urges readers not to send the typically cheery greeting cards but supportive notes acknowledging a death.

I agree.

Acting as if nothing has happened is unhelpful. Saying the wrong thing can be just as bothersome -- for instance, suggesting that someone took his life because he was selfish. Perhaps the most irksome is, "You need to move on." Add the holidays to the mix, and it's an unsavory cocktail.

Making Sense of Feelings

Someone knee-deep in grief needs space and time to make sense of his or her feelings. There's no room for deadlines or expectations, particularly at the holidays, and on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Like Warren, I too have wondered what to do with my feelings about my brother's death. A flock of emotions descends after a suicide: confusion, anger, frustration, despair, guilt, incredulity, doubt, ambivalence.

My first holiday season came fast on the heels of Jim's death in September 2013. It was awful. I bought plenty of gifts, decked my house and trimmed a giant tree. Still I couldn't trick myself into feeling wonderful. Mocking the season's merriment, shadowy skies dimmed the twinkling and jingling. The world looked gray from every angle.

Even a towering tree couldn't stem the grief I faced the first Christmas after my brother's suicide.

If I've learned anything about grief, it's this: Feelings are fickle and at times faulty gauges of reality. But they must be honored. Ignoring them can be disastrous. One way I've channeled my feelings is into writing about depression and suicide. I'm seeking forums where I can talk about these topics, to help rewire the common logic that hard grief is somehow bad or unhealthy. This is partly healing for me and -- I hope -- helpful to others.

American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner has said:

The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.

Such is my goal -- that the experience of my brother's suicide will fortify me for the days ahead. Bad can be remodeled into good, even into something glorious. We must be willing accomplices in the painful process. Along the way, we realize the human experience is deeply rooted in both joy and sorrow. Our lives are dynamic expressions of this duality -- not marred by sorrow, but richer for it.

What to Do?

Grief manuals don't come tailor-made, not for the people suffering loss or those looking to support them. While I'm not a therapist, I have a few suggestions for helping others through grief at the holidays, or whenever. These are based on my personal experiences:

1. Verbally acknowledge their sorrow. Talk to them face-to-face, on the phone or send a card. It doesn't need to be poetic. Simpler is often better.

2. Show up. Offer to take out their trash, buy them groceries or watch their kids. Be available to just listen to or sit with them.

3. Don't suggest they should be moving on by now. Grief takes whatever time it likes, so rushing someone through it is fruitless, and insensitive.

4. Tell them it's OK to feel awful at the most wonderful time of the year. Validating their feelings is a precious gift.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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