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Holiday Grief and the Power of Sharing Stories

grief grief support holiday grief Dec 05, 2023
holiday grief sharing stories recovery

By Ilana Shapiro Yahdav

It’s fascinating how a time of year so highly touted as being happy and joyous can cause so much angst, overwhelm, stress, and sadness. What is it about the holidays exactly that elicits so many conflicting emotions? Admittedly, this is quite a loaded question, that doesn’t really have a definitive answer. 

However, underlying grief is the most basic answer. We are all grieving something. 

Even if you don't associate your feelings with grief or a specific loss, the common experience of stress during this season can be the grief of wishing you had more time with your kids, or that you weren’t so stressed about finances while researching holiday gifts.

(Remember: grief is the normal and natural reaction to the loss of any kind and the conflicting feelings around the change/end of any familiar pattern or behavior. It can also be what we wish were different or better). 

Whether it’s something that happened years or minutes ago, we have all experienced some sort of change in a familiar pattern or behavior. And this does not apply to only negative experiences - positive experiences can elicit grief as well (remember, it’s a change! A good change is still a change!).

For example, think of your first Thanksgiving with a new partner. This is often exciting but can also introduce new challenges of navigating two families, different traditions, and different locales. It can be exciting to create new traditions with new family and sad to miss being with old family and enjoying older traditions. 

In my family, each year we switch off spending Thanksgiving with my husband’s family and then with my family. This year was super bittersweet - my two brothers and their families and mother were all together without me (first time in years!). I had a wonderful time with my husband’s family and also was sad to not be with my family. Both emotions got a seat at the table. 

The holidays also have this uncanny way of magnifying what is missing.

Perhaps it’s because there are so many spotlights on what the ‘perfect’ and ‘whole’ family looks like celebrating, that it’s so tightly ingrained in our subconscious that we don’t even realize when we start to compare. Or, maybe there is no comparison, but seeing a seemingly ‘complete’ family, all smiles and in matching jammies, can be a slap in the face of what is missing in your world. 

It’s also a practice, I’d say, to really embrace allowing and accepting the feeling of seemingly juxtaposing feelings.

Kim and I remind our clients a lot, that you can feel gratitude and grief, you can feel sadness and joy simultaneously. Both feelings do not negate the other and are totally normal. This is especially important to remember on the holidays. We can enjoy the holiday spirit and all that it does (or does not) entail for us and be really sad and miss those who are not with us, or the traditions that are no longer carried out.

We do not need to feel guilt for experiencing joy, or grief, or for not wanting the holidays to be tainted by grief. It’s a very real experience to not want to have to cancel holiday plans due to a death or illness of a loved one and to want to keep plans and enjoy oneself. 

The holidays can also be a wonderful time to share stories - both of the then and the now, of people living and not. It is also a huge invitation to find new ways to honor loved ones no longer here and create new rituals and/or traditions. 

As a newish parent, I’m now in the process of figuring out ways to incorporate my dad (and grandparents) into our holiday celebrations. My oldest (almost 3, going on 16), who is also named in loving memory of my dad, is starting to become more and more aware of the holidays and asks lots of questions. I feel a heavy pressure to find ways to not only incorporate my dad’s memory but be more on top of teaching my girls the meanings and stories behind the holidays and traditions. I’m even more grateful that Kim and I created a workbook and course to do just that! 

December is a big month in my house. It’s not only Chanukah, but both of my girls’ birthdays! So, we not only get to decorate for Chanukah, but for birthdays as well. I’m reminded of how my mom used to hang up decorations in our house and how we lit the candles and sang badly every night (we tried to sing!). One especially memorable year just popped into my head, It was 1988. Usually, my parents would save the biggest or ‘best’ present for the 8th night of Chanukah. That year, on the last night, my parents gave my older brother and me a book about having a baby and told us we were getting a baby sibling. Needless to say, I was not quite pleased to have that as our ‘big’ present and I don’t think I fully grasped the meaning. After all, I was six. (Of course, over 30 years later, I think my little brother was indeed one of the best presents ever!) Just writing this story and remembering my family fully intact, warms my heart and puts a smile on my face.

Upon reflecting, there are so many traditions that I want to keep the same, and many I want to change, and make my own. This is one of the powers of stories - allowing us to access all aspects of our memories, especially the happy ones. 

Sharing stories is cathartic for so many reasons:

  • Keeping the memory alive 
    • Sharing the memory with others, and feeling connected
  • Having your feelings witnessed by others
  • Getting the words out of our heart (journaling helps with this too)
  • Sharing tears or laughter 
  • Reflecting on the legacy of your loved one - their values, their virtues, and even their quirks that made them them

How are you feeling amid the holiday season this year?

Do you feel compelled to share any stories? Of whom? With whom? Or, do you plan to journal? There is no right or wrong answer, only what feels right for you. 

We’d love to hear your stories.