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.