Grieving During the Holidays
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
It’s holiday time again. Comes around every year. Same time. Same weather. Same smells. Same decorations. Same people. Same music. Same food. Same expectations. It’s in our cells. We’ve grown up with it. We pass it on to our kids as if it were part of our DNA… We look forward to it. And we look forward to it being over.
So if everything’s the same, why does it seem so different when we’re grieving? A day, time, or event stands all by itself. It may contain beauty, but it carries no passion, no feeling, no excitement. It’s we who bring that emotion in to make it an experience.
Last night I sat with the Parents of Murdered Children group, as I have done for the past 33 years, as they observed this Christmas holiday together.
The newly bereaved parents who acknowledged how they used to love this season, were now dreading the holidays As the more seasoned bereaved parents shared the experience of years, the newer ones saw that dread or trepidation was quite a natural feeling to have under the circumstances. One of the parents told the group that after the death of her son it had been seven years before she was ready to decorate a tree. That helped others to see that this hard place they were in right now would not last forever. Hope was the gift they gave to each other.
New and old shared memories of their loved ones. They talked of upcoming trials and parole board hearings and difficulties being in noisy crowds with Christmas music blaring overhead. They laughed and they cried and gave each other hugs. There was no pretending that everything was all right. There was no stuffing of any emotion. These parents were in a safe place where nothing was off limits in conversation.
We shared a short memorial service where a poem was read, a bell was rung after each child’s name was called out loud, and appropriate musical selections performed by one of the parents in the group. Then behind a background of recorded songs—“Remember Me” and “I Wouldn’t Have Missed This for the World”—photos of each child appeared one by one, larger than life on a big screen. I looked at the parents faces as their child took center stage for a brief moment. There through glistening eyes was pride, joy, and remembering.
Death and Christmas are opposites. It’s no wonder the bereaved have a difficult time navigating their way through it. Our culture has made Christmas a time for giving and receiving. It’s about cramming our lives with things and experiences. Sadly, the whole season can become quite superficial.
Death on the other hand is about having something taken away--about being made bare. There is nothing superficial about the grief that follows the loss of a loved one. But grief, if we let it, can give something back. Experiencing grief does not mean that we have to only be worn down by our pain. Rather, by letting grief do its work on us, we can become increasingly filled up with compassion, more aware of life’s richness, more able to help others, and more able to help ourselves.
Yes. The holidays are upon us. It happens every year. I have a wish for you. May you enjoy what you can enjoy, endure what you must endure, and leave the rest for another year.