This is the time of year for family to come together. Everyone accumulates at one destination, traveling far and wide to hug and kiss, laugh, exchange gifts, catch up, and to simply enjoy each other's loving company. Everyone slows down, and you are finally able to reunite with those who live far away, who are too busy any other time of the year. Holidays make your family feel whole, complete.
But when you've lost a close family member, the holidays have the opposite effect. Your family feels painfully small, excruciatingly tiny. During this happy time of year, you are forced to accept how incomplete it is, and the fact that it will never, ever feel whole again.
Some of the best days of the year have turned into the worst. There is a permanent absence now, a gaping hole that is impossible to ignore and unimaginable to fill. There is an empty chair at the dinner table, a limp stocking, a missing birthday card, one less voice filling the room. There are constant reminders that your holidays will never be as happy as they once were.
As you are experiencing the holidays without them, all you can focus on are the ones you had with them. The cold reality is that you were expecting so many more. You never considered that this might be the last birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's with them. You might have ignored them all of those times, hardly aware of their presence when they were actually there just because you assumed there would be so many more. But when they suddenly aren't there, and you know that they will never be again, it's like losing a limb. It's like having your dominant hand cut off while being forced to watch everyone else in the world celebrate, unaffected.
It is such an acute, overbearing pain that no one can ever recognize from the outside. Every day holds its own amount of inescapable agony and heartbreak, but the holidays twist the knife. Holidays mock what you don't have. Because even though you still might be getting presents and cards and money, you are not getting what you really want, what you really need to make it through another year.
Holidays are supposed to be, are known to be, a happy and joyous time. And you fondly remember when they were. But that was before. Most people look back to their youthful holidays with light nostalgia, but you look back with a deep, yearning depression. Because now year after year it'll cut you to the core. It'll make your family feel meaningless and pitifully small. That bitterness inside of you will continue to grow, even though you're far too young for it.
Now when I should be excited for holidays, like waking up on Christmas morning, or having cake on my birthday, or sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner, I want to cry instead. I want to stay in bed all day. I want it all to pass without my contribution. I don't want to open presents and celebrate and have fun, because everyone I want to celebrate with is not there. Even if you're surrounded by the rest of your family, it feels lonely and quiet and solemn without that one specific person. It doesn't feel like a time of celebration but a time of mourning. The holidays feel forced, like everyone is putting on a happy face and giving gifts against their will - as if they didn't break down in Macy's the week before because they saw a sweater they probably would've bought him; as if they didn't feel a stabbing pain when they realized they couldn't call and ask about combining gifts; as if it wasn't a horrible few hours when they had to drive to Grandma's alone because they no longer have their favorite carpool buddy.
Nothing feels right. Nothing is how it was; nothing is how you want it be. And you have absolutely no choice but to accept that for the rest of your life, the holidays will never be a happy time of year.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.