Let’s face it. There’s tremendous pressure to be happy and festive over the holidays. The streets fill with carolers and decorations. It seems every commercial has a family enjoying a cup of cheer. And the ghosts of our Christmas pasts remind us ‘tis the season to be jolly.
For we women in pain though, another motif often plays out during the holidays. It’s one filled with pain and loss – and it can get the best of us if we don’t practice the self-care tool of grieving. I know because it was only after I grieved my seasonal loss that I stopped dreading the ’ber months (Sept’, Oct’, Nov’ and Dec’) and began enjoying the holidays again, but with different expectations.
Growing up, my joy was year round. But make no mistake, the holidays were off the charts magical. Thanksgiving was always at our best friend’s, the DePace’s, in their high-on-the-hill abode. We dressed to the nines and the love and laughter while feasting was almost nonstop. We’d gorge ourselves while kidding that the only way we’d get to the car would be to roll each other out.
Then, oh baby, Christmas was on its way. Our family belonged to a co-op and we waited with big eyes and anticipation for the Sunday morning they’d sell their trees. Everyone rose at 5am to get to the lot. We picked out our tree, met friends while warming our hands by the fire, drank hot chocolate and listened to the classics. Mom’s favorite was Doris Day. Think Norman Rockwell with a twist of Flower Children.
The good tidings rambled on through my New Year’s Eve birthday when the family threw a huge party. We were deep into the community theater scene – and no one missed the Toussaint’s annual shindig. Even the clean-up was festive when we woke New Year’s Day and laughed about the confetti ground into the parquet floors.
Several years after my high-impact, chronic pain took hold, however, there was no longer reason for celebration. In fact I remember one Christmas morning when my partner, John, and I were alone in our condo after being up all night with unspeakable sadness. We silently untrimmed our tree and took down anything and everything that reminded us that we should be merry.
The holidays grinded on like this for a couple of decades, despite my trying every which way to make them festive and joyful again. I kept knocking my head against the wall while I searched in vain to bring back the old days. Turns out I was searching for ghosts.
Then one year I tried something new. I grieved. I mean, I really grieved. I grieved that I no longer had a big family that would sit around the fireplace. I grieved that John and I wouldn’t be able to have our own family to celebrate with. I grieved that I would never again have the health to do the million little things that make the holidays spectacular.
And then something wonderful happened. My grieving turned into acceptance of what is – and with that came new, realistic expectations. I now know the holidays won’t be a whiz-bang magical circus of delight. Instead there’ll be a steady string of seasonal pleasantries with a healthy dollop of grateful moments and, yes, the occasional upset. Also, I won’t spend the season with a big happy family, but will enjoy making merry with good friends and family members when the feeling is right. More often than not these days when my birthday rolls around I’m generally glowing and feeling special for what loved ones have done for me. Ringing in the New Year is again laced with joy and hope.
I’m grateful to have gained the self-care wisdom to grieve – and with practice, I’ve gotten good at it. People often tell me not to grieve because it will make me sad. I couldn’t disagree more. When human beings experience significant loss, it’s healthy and necessary to grieve in order to come through the other side. If we don’t allow ourselves this natural healing process, heartbreak and sadness will fester and we tend to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. That, and we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to grow.
It’s important to remember that grieving is an ongoing process – and the five steps (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are not necessarily linear and without repeats. For instance, just last week, I began grieving again the loss of the child John and I wanted to have more than two decades ago. And I grieved it differently as I thought longingly about the young adult who’d be a college student now and on her way home to celebrate.
We women in pain need to give ourselves the space and gift of grieving. We experience so much loss which is amplified during the holidays. Instead of turning away with fake smiles and witty small talk when our hearts are breaking, let’s lean into the pain to the healthiest point we’re able.
When we truly grieve, our overwhelming heaviness becomes a brick that we carry around in our pocket. And that’s do-able during this season of “comfort and joy.”
I wish you peace and the wonder of grace…