3 Things You Can Do When Holidays Are Hard

It’s Christmas week, and I realized the other day that this is the first Christmas since my mom passed away that things have felt — different. While there are still many times when the absence of her screams in my chest – her soft hugs, radiant smile, and all the little things she did she made the season so special- this year I find myself enjoying the season in a way that hasn’t felt this authentic in a long time.

Over the last few years, I’ve made an effort to carry on some of my mother’s traditions as a mom, myself, with a bittersweet undercurrent. I’ve also made many new traditions with my husband and daughter, so that now there’s a kind of changed vision/expectation of what Christmas is. There’s a “new normal” in a way (although maybe 2020 has ruined us on this phrase). I always enjoy and go through the motions of Christmas, but this year is the first year when my grief hasn’t swooped in for brutal surprise attacks.

That said, the absence of my mom is still very much a part of the Christmas season. It’s just that, at this point in my life, new things have bloomed over the roots of memories that will always be there. I don’t think our growth comes at a point when “it doesn’t hurt” anymore. As one of my favorite authors, John Green, once wrote: “It’s going to hurt because it matters.” I think our growth comes as we accept what is there and keep living, keep moving forward, keep learning new things and loving people (even though, when you’re hurting or grieving, loving others is probably one of the hardest things you can do. I think it’s also the most important thing we can do.)

While I find myself in a more festive state of mind this year, I wanted to share some things have helped me over the years when the holidays have been particularly hard (and which I still do try to remember). If you are struggling this year, as many people do, I also want to say that I know my grief is not your grief. Perhaps you’re struggling with the loss of a person, a job, a lifestyle, a traditional Christmas vacation.

Maybe you’re not grieving anything specific at all, but the holidays trigger anxiety, or in an inexplicable ache that no one else “gets.” The visions and expectations of a perfect Christmas can stir up emotional storms in a more people than we probably realize, and I think that’s probably more common this year than in recent years past. Maybe our experiences and hurts are totally different, but even so: you’re not alone. Here are 3 things that have helped me, and I hope that they help you too.

1. Don’t Try to Make it Something It’s Not

Pretending to be in non-stop jolly-mode during the holidays when you’re struggling inside can be a dangerous game, especially if you aren’t being real with your closest family and friends. And especially if you aren’t being real with yourself. I’m not saying that you should dwell obsessively on your hurt (which can be dangerous too), but more that you should admit it’s there to yourself, and start to recognize the things that trigger it.

The second important part of this? Don’t pretend to the people who care about you the most. Let them in on what’s going on. This comes more naturally for some people, and less naturally for others. If it’s hard for you, it doesn’t have to be a big “sit down and talk.” You can let others in through smaller avenues.

One of the small things that has helped me cope with my mom’s absence (and grandparents’ absence, too) over the last few years has been simply to talk very openly about memories with them from previous holidays. Like, I’d tell my husband about how my mom and I always went to see The Nutcracker, or talk about the time that my Papaw snuck into the kitchen and ate almost the entire coconut cake by himself.

During the first couple of years, especially, talking about these good memories hurt more than they made me happy. They showed my pain, and my husband didn’t quite know what to do with me telling him things that seemed to make me cry. Talking about feelings – especially painful ones – is perhaps not his default, but he loves me. He’s learned that it’s something that helps me, and that sharing the memories which trigger an ache inside me helps me to feel less alone.

Because he loves me, he listens, and that makes me feel like I don’t carry those heavy things all by myself. If you are hurting, I hope you’ll think about at least one or two people that you know would want to help. And no, they probably can’t fix your pain, but not being alone will make it easier to carry.

2. Figure Out What You Need and Ask The People Who Care

Honestly, this one goes hand in hand with the last point. If you’ve found a person in your life that you are comfortable trusting with your holiday struggles, then it’s going to help you both if you can figure out what kind of support you need.

Some people are naturally gifted at just knowing what words you need to hear (or if it’s not a good time for words). However, since we all have different ways of processing and coping with grief, depression and anxiety, it’s more likely that your friends or family members will want to help, but be a little flummoxed as to the how.

And sometimes when people want to help but don’t know how, it can add hurt where, by all good intentions, help ought to be. Your friends and family love you. They don’t want to hurt you with the wrong words or actions. And, as funny as it may seem, you are sometimes the only one who can help them help you.

This involves digging yourself out of your hole a little bit so that you can give a few specific suggestions. I think that the process of gaining that insight into what will actually help is a little bit helpful, on its own. Consider about things like:

Do I need someone to just listen, or do I want to have a conversation about this? Would _______ pray with me? Do I just need someone to understand what I’m going through and then hang out with me and do something normal?

If you’re reading this because you’re struggling, I get that it’s hard for you to know what you need right now. But anything you can give your friends/family in this area will help them to be there for you in the way that I’m sure they want to be.

3. Assess What is Actually Self-Care

Because it’s been such a trying year, there are a lot of jokes about what self-care means these days. “Mommy needs wine,” has been a popular one (and I’d be completely lying if I claimed to never have said it.) However, let’s take a reality check moment to remember what self-care actually means. It’s taking care of your needs: emotional and physical. Not your immediate wants (AKA locking yourself in a closet with a bottle of wine and junk food is not actually self-care, even if it seems like what you want to do).

In fact, self-care often means doing the things we don’t want to do when we’re down: talking to a friend, going outside on a walk, doing something creative, drinking more water, cooking a nutritious meal. Take care of yourself like you’d look after someone you love, and you’re getting closer to what I think “self-care” is intended to mean.

Especially, if you are finding yourself drawn more and more regularly towards self-isolation (not the quarantine kind, the emotional kind) and unhealthy habits, it might be time to step back and assess what taking care of yourself should actually look like. You can start small. Drink more water. Listen to music that you love. Go outside. Call a friend. Take care of you.

I know that these are general tips, but I hope that they help you if your holiday season has been a difficult one. I also just want to say that it’s okay- more than okay- to be complicated. Christmas (the Christmas that I believe in) is about the salvation of humanity. And humanity is complex, damaged, and beautiful. And God loves us anyway. That is the gift. So I can be jolly and melancholy in turns throughout this season of big feelings, and I don’t have ignore or be ashamed of that. . .and neither do you.

How Do You Like My Leaf?

One of the many things I loved and miss about my mom is how we used to make up silly songs together about ordinary situations. Usually, this would happen when we were walking or cleaning or driving somewhere. I used to love running errands with her, even when I was older. She was the kind of person who made mundane things in life a little extra special and fun.  When my dad would protest to the unrealistic nature of blockbuster musicals, we would point out to him that he kind of lived in a musical.

Though my mom and I both had a deep appreciation for good music, the songs we’d make up were classically terrible. Just really, really bad–but funny. Snort until (your pants are at risk) level of funny. Usually, the melody would either be stolen or very haphazard, and the lyrics would be morbid, purposely obtuse, or random observations.  Sometimes they wouldn’t make any sense to anyone but us. We could rarely remember them later.

HOWEVER, I do remember the very first song.

The very first song we ever made up together was when I was about three years old, and it was called, “How do you like my leaf?”

Mom and I were walking at Wilshire Trails park in Gainesville, Ga. It’s a beautiful park, with paths that wind through threes and over streams, an old, covered “Troll bridge,” and several large rocks on which to climb. It was autumn, and the ground was strewn with wet red, yellow and brown leaves stuck to the path. I picked one up gleefully and beamed up at my grown BFF.

“How do you like my leaf?” I singsonged.

Without missing a beat, mom sang back: “It’s very wonderful!”

“How do you like my leaf?”

“Very Very NICEEE!”

“How do you like my leaf?”

“I don’t want to sing this song!” (still singing of course)

“How do you like my leaf?”


This kept going. It escalated. The faux angst to my mom’s response lyrics got increasingly more panicked. You get the idea.

Whether we wanted to or not, we would remember, “How do you like my leaf?” forever after.  It can get stuck in your head permanently. Eventually, my mom, dad and I hated that song, but we loved it too.

Well, that silly little song has been in my head a lot this week, and I know it is because it is the week of my mom’s birthday.   Autumn was, in so many ways, her season. It was the time of the year when my small family made so many formative childhood memories. Autumn was when we’d head up to the Appalachian Mountains and camp as much as we possibly could. Autumn is when we’d meet my grandparents for a cozy vacation in Tennessee. Autumn was when we’d head to Jaemor Farms to buy all the apples and explore the corn maze. It was when my dad would light up the old fireplace for the first time in months, making our house by the lake smell like old stone and smoke and spices and woods.

All of these memories, and so many more, float through my head  constantly  this time of year. They are like memory-leaves scattering down, catching on light breezes as my heart jerks in response to them.

A few days ago, I was walking with Kora, my three year old daughter, and she found a bright orange leaf that she thought was amazing. She beamed at me with her billion watt smile.

“Look, mama! A Nana (banana) leaf!”

It was a perfect leaf, and a perfect memory, and a perfect moment to share a little bit of my mom with my daughter. So I taught Kora the infamous jingle. Of course, what with being the very bottom of the barrel it terms of sophistication, the song thrilled Kora’s little heart and provoked many giggles.

Yesterday, out of nowhere, she wanted to sing it with me again. It caught me in the gut, but made me smile, too.

My mom’s birthday is tomorrow (October 27), and it is the first year since she’s passed where I have a very full day that does not allow me much time to reflect. The last four years, I’ve purposefully tried not to schedule much, unless it was getting together with my dad and/or grandmother. It has kind of been a day for me to remember, to put flowers on my mom’s grave, to look at pictures. Tomorrow will not be that, though. I’ll be participating as a first-time vendor in a really whimsical local fall festival, selling  the apothecary products that I make.  When the opportunity first presented itself, I knew I wanted to do it immediately. However, when I found out it was on the 27th, I hesitated. Would it be wrong to be busy?

But the more I think about it all,  the more I feel good about it. My mom would have been so excited about me doing this, and I know it will be a fun new fall memory for me and my family.  So many little things this week keep pointing me back to the thought that I am able to go forward while smiling back at the beautiful memories behind me.  There is heartache to be felt, but sweetness to remember…And wonderful things that can only be built because of what has come before.


Remembering the Tidal Wave

-There’s no denying that this week, the week of June 18, sucks. Maybe it always will.  Each moment of June 18, 2013…and the days leading up to it, are pounding brain in tidal waves of memory and grief this week. I’m not alone in grief; I don’t pretend to be. I don’t share these thoughts in an effort to seem important, but because these feelings are important, and we all have them. They merit expression in words, which don’t come easily for everyone.  Our stories matter. Here’s some of mine-

It’s not just remembering saying goodbye the day you died. It’s the remembrance of everything in those last days.

That final trip to the hospital, when you were discharged and assigned hospice care.  I promised to make you something good to eat when we got home. You just looked at me with those sad, blue, dolphin eyes. You smiled, slightly; I took a photo.  I didn’t know that you were saying goodbye, then. I had absolutely no idea. Not until June the 19, when I was sorting out pictures for the funeral arrangements. I looked at that photo – taken only days before – and saw your face looking back at me in that moment: brave, sad, loving, pitying.

At home, family began to arrive. Hospice gravely told us you had a few weeks, perhaps. The truth was it would only be a few days. Dad went back to the bedroom and told you, quietly, what they’d said. I heard you cry out, “I don’t want to die yet!” The loudest words you’d spoken in weeks. It broke my heart. Breaks my heart, even at this very moment; I can hear it now.

That night I screamed. And screamed. This was a nightmare I had had over and over as a small child. But was this real? Was this real? No, no, couldn’t be. It was. But it couldn’t be.

Surely I would wake up.

The next day, you went to sleep.

 Your friends and family poured in. Bringing food. Sitting in the bed next to you. Singing and praying and kissing your face as you drifted in and out of awareness.  I lay in bed with my arms around you while you slept. I tried not to cry, in case you would hear, but once I lost control. You hadn’t moved all day, until then. You moaned and lifted your hand to rub my back, softly. Small tears slipped out of the corners of your closed eyes. Later, there would be a tiny bit of dry salt there.

Don’t worry. I know how much you love me. Always have. Always will.

June 17: The night before it happened, I sat near you with my husband and my best friend. We read you poems. You seemed content, though you did not stir. Dad held your hand all night: so sweet, so vigilant.

I drove home.

He called the next morning. Early. Barely able to get the words out, he told me that you were struggling to breathe, “fish out of water,” he said.

I made it just in time, which was a miracle. Another miracle; you heard my voice and opened your eyes: looked at me, into me.

That’s how you left the world, looking into me.

Pouring your love into me, just like you always had.

I saw you leave. Saw the light go out. Saw your body empty of you. I know where you went.

No one could die better. What a hard thing, but what an honor, it was: to say goodbye like that, your eyes on mine. It’s a memory that hurts and haunts me, but I treasure it all the same. Sometimes, a lot of times, that’s the image I see when I close my eyes at night.

-People say that grief comes in waves, and they are right. That’s how it feels. Like a tidal wave. I think that the first year is the worst for most people: you never know how high the waves are going to be, when they are going to hit. It’s not that you miss someone less after the first year; it’s just that you learn to keep swimming. Life keeps happening no matter how much you feel like it should have stopped. Eventually it just becomes part of you. That doesn’t mean you forget, or that it doesn’t hurt anymore, but it becomes a different sort of thing. You learn to anticipate what might trigger it: holidays, birthday and weeks like this one–the anniversary of the loss.

It’s been 3 years now, and most days I keep swimming pretty well. But this week has – like a tidal wave – knocked me off my feet. I wasn’t expecting it, somehow. All these memories to come flooding in this strongly. It sucks – literally sucks the air out of me-sucks me down under the weight of everything. People who haven’t had this kind of loss in their lives don’t quite realize how much these waves can  feel less like sadness and more like raw horror. While I share this without a bow on top, without any dusting of sugar, I do know that it won’t always hurt like this.

Next week will be better, or maybe just different, again. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge our pain when we’re in it. We feel these things  because we’ve lost something valuable–in our grief, we acknowledge the value of what we’ve lost.

As my mom always said, “It is what it is.”

My Mom, Motherhood, Moving through Grief

This is from about a year and a half ago, a few months after my mom died. I came across it today and realized how many of those things are still true, but also how I’ve grown around them as they have become part of my life.  Now I have Kora, and though the process of being pregnant and having a new baby has had many moments of grief without my mother, these have still been majorly joyful experiences. Reading this, I have realized that I am growing stronger than I ever would have expected in 18 months. I’m hurting, but I’m also okay. I didn’t feel ready to get pregnant when it happened, that wasn’t the plan….for many reasons, including the ones mentioned in my words below.  But it did happen, and I’m so glad it did. Maybe I never would have felt ready. Maybe I’ll always hurt, but I don’t mind. There are new loves ahead, but never the same love that was lost. Life keeps rolling along. As Kora grows up, I can only hope that my daughter will know her mom loves her as much as I always knew mine loved me. Continue reading “My Mom, Motherhood, Moving through Grief”

Grief is Complicated.

I’m not trying to be morbid here, just real, because this is something that affects us all.  My husband and I got married almost three years ago. Can I just say that I love being married to that guy?  And I feel like our relationship has been really blessed. That being said, it’s also been three very, very hard years in terms of just about everything else. I’m not going into it now, but those of you who know me know some of the story. I also have some really sweet friends who have had to face things that make me weep.  I don’t understand the meaning of it all. Continue reading “Grief is Complicated.”

Letter to a Concerned Friend from The Grieving Heart

Dear friend,

As the words “How are you doing?”  or  “Are you okay?” spill out of your mouth, I know that you are only asking because you care.  You are trying to help by showing me that yes, you remembered, you understand, you know it’s been hard.

Sometimes maybe you ask because you feel like you have to before we can discuss anything else. You want to get it over with.

A lot of times you just ask because you think it’s probably the only thing you can do.

Actually, there is nothing you can do. Continue reading “Letter to a Concerned Friend from The Grieving Heart”