The Holidays in Times of Grief

Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Faith Kowitz, University of Duluth

Around this time of the year, I see a bunch of Hallmark movies pop up on my Netflix account. Everyone knows the story. The city girl has to go back home to the small town. Mr. Drop-Dead-Gorgeous finds Ms. New York very attractive. Ms. New York plays hard to get. The two get stuck under the mistletoe and they kiss (let the fireworks erupt). Insert me rolling my eyes. 

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I don’t like the unrealistic scenarios of Hallmark movies. In my family, we have seen some dark and lonely holidays. I often pine for the predictable outcome of holiday films. You always know that there will be happiness and joy in the end, but life isn’t exactly like that. And in the face of death and loss, how are we supposed to be thankful when our loved ones are no longer with us? 

I come from a super close family, which I am grateful for. I am the youngest of seven, the only one whom is adopted. A child of the foster care system, I often had no idea where I would be spending my next holiday. Once I was welcomed into my permanent family, though, I took part in the joy-filled activities of the holidays. I still remember the smiles and the dorky laughs echoing throughout our home. I can see the twinkling lights of the tree that we set up way too early behind the dinner table. Everyone is coming to the table with plates overflowing with turkey and stuffing. As the years went by, our table made for eight people could no longer hold all of us and our loved ones. After the Thanksgiving meal, many of us would lay on the ground and the couches moaning and groaning until our dad would come up from the basement dancing with excitement over A Christmas Carol

With our full bellies, we would thump down to the basement with popcorn, chocolates, teas, coffee, and cocoa. A Christmas Carol was a major tradition we partook in for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have about 8 different versions and Dad loved the worst ones! My dad usually would end up listening to my sisters and I laughing our calories off at some stupid remark one of us said. 

Doesn’t that sound like a great holiday? You’re probably asking yourself about that first paragraph complaining about these stereotypical situations. Well, my dad died about five years ago. Ever since, I’ve felt that I lost the very center of those traditions I looked forward to. While I will always love seeing everyone, the holidays bring on a certain sense of overwhelming grief. How can how holidays happy when you lost the one whom you could always count on to share a smile? 

Today, holidays look more like this: Thanksgiving comes around and my anxiety starts eating at me. My sister, who lost her husband, is trying to figure out how to get all four of her kids to our mother’s house during a winter storm. Some of my sisters are hurt and angry because of deep-seeded qualms with my brother. My mom, when finally seeing everyone together, will start to get sad and miss Dad. The stories of ones we have lost will be exchanged. This exchange is a bittersweet time, but the holidays would feel fake without it. 

I’m very fortunate that my family runs on laughter. Even when life throws us curveballs, we survive on our laughter. But lately, laughter has been hard for us. I’m sure there are other people out there who are in the same situation. I would like to give some advice and wisdom that could help. I’m sure that some of this is hard to hear, but my goal in writing this is to give hope to those struggling with loss and hardship during the holiday season.

When a loved one dies, most people will tell you that he or she is in a better place. Even though there is truth in this statement, it can be hard to accept it, because no matter where they are, it feels like they cannot share in the joy of the season. So let me instead assure you that your loved one is closer to God than we ever could be. Children are notorious for sharing everything they are excited about. So, in a state of child-like wonder and hopefulness, I envision that our deceased loved ones eagerly tell God all about what’s going on in our lives, participating with us in memorable moments from above.

When it comes to holidays it’s hard to celebrate when your loved one isn’t there. However, recently, I have started to envision that my dad still celebrates with us. But now, he gets to see a side of the festivities that we don’t, and in that way, I can’t help but be slightly jealous. When I make his favorite cookies, I imagine him eating those cookies but with a more “Heavenly” twist to them. This gives me peace in moments of extreme grief. 

My family has been a huge part of my healing process. If I didn’t have my sisters and my mom, I don’t know where I would be. It was my sisters who would encourage me to not hide into myself and to reach out to them for help. By helping others heal, you can start to heal as well. And while not everyone has a family member that they are comfortable enough with, even a friend can help. Nevertheless, isolation is not beneficial to healing. If you don’t have anyone to talk to about your grief with, I would recommend finding someone whom you can simply share stories about your loved one with. Memories help keep the person alive in you. I would recommend to not have holidays alone. 

I was mad at God for a long time. My mom told me that often we won’t, in our humanness, necessarily connect with God the Father. So, she told me to find a person of the Trinity whom I could specifically forge a relationship with. I connected with Jesus because he went through so much earthly suffering. He even asked God the Father to take it from him but accepted that it was His Will. This helped me rebuild my relationship with God the Father. I would go to adoration often because that was when could talk to my best friend, Jesus, and I could tell Him how frustrated I felt with God the Father, and ask for peace and understanding. 

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”  You are strong. You may not feel strong but feelings can be hyperfocused on healing you. Strength, in this case, is not something you can always feel, because it is in your brokenness and vulnerability that you show your true strength. When you wake up every day, you are strong. When you take that step out of bed when it is the only place you feel safe, you are strong. When you can smile at someone who needs it, even though you feel like that should be you, then you are strong. Grief is overwhelming and life-long, but the floods of emotions are temporary. Those will end. 

If you feel grief this holiday season, and no one has told you, I am proud of you. You made it to another holiday and your chin is still up. Even if it is not, it will be one day. You will smile again. I will pray for you all struggling this holiday. You are not alone. God bless. 

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