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Dealing with grief during the holidays

By Tony Caldwell

carry your heart (I carry it in my heart) – E. E. Cummings

We humans are incredibly vulnerable. We are all susceptible to tragedy and loss and the grief that follows. The holidays can be a time of intensified grief for many of us. This is because the holidays highlight our loss. Thanksgiving and Christmas are about connection and celebration, two things that loss can seriously dampen our capacity to participate in. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate abundance, but we may be also be feeling a distinct absence. Christmas is a time when we celebrate a special birth, but we may also be grieving a special death.

When it comes to grief, words just simply are not adequate. Because grief is sacred. Grief is holy. And sometimes, when in the presence of sacredness and holiness, silence, not words, is the only appropriate response. A bond that is sacred to us has been lost. And that depth of love and loss demands that it be honored.

Grief is not just a process, it is also a path of transformation. We never “return to normal.” We arrive at a new normal. We never “get over it.” We get through it. We never “move on.” We move forward. Grief changes us.

Sometimes acceptance and depression are two sides of the same coin. Acceptance can be talked about in ways that sound like a warm, fuzzy future destination, the “end” of the grief cycle. But this just simply isn’t true. Yes, wounds heal. But acceptance means that we are accepting a reality less than the one we had. We want who and what was taken from us to be returned. Acceptance can be very depressing.

If you are currently grieving, I encourage you to not isolate over the next few weeks. Connection is not just important, it is non-negotiable. See, the grief process is not just a process of healing, it is a process of recovery. A major part of this work is the recovery of parts of ourselves that are lost when we lose someone central to us. Grief is a natural response to a comprehensive wound.

Grief is an emotional, mental, and spiritual wound; and this is precisely because it is a relational wound. The point of contact, and therefore the point of loss, is the role we played: parent, child, spouse, friend. Living in the light of death can bring about a loss of meaning and purpose and we can carry the relational phantom pains for a long time. As much as it may hurt, it is important to create new points of relational contact and to utilize the existing relationships available to us. And it’s okay to ask for what you need. Sometimes we just need someone to sit with us without filling the space with too many words, advice, small talk, or pep talks. Maybe just having someone sit with us is enough. Maybe “I see you, I’m with you and I love you” is all we need to hear. Ask to be loved in ways that feel like love to you.

When clients are feeling stuck in grief, I often encourage them to move towards the life they want in hopes that their feelings will eventually catch up with them. Because if we wait until we feel like it, we may not move. It is common to go numb. This can be a gift as long as it doesn’t become a lifestyle. Anger is also a gift as long as it doesn’t become the new normal. Whatever you may be feeling, please know that it is valid.

Grief is important. Grief is appropriate. Grief is holy. Grief is sacred.

When our loved ones pass, they become our ancestors. “I carry you in my heart” becomes our mantra. The fact that we have the capacity to suffer so greatly is all the evidence I need to prove that we are spiritual beings. I truly believe that we are never closer to the heart of God than when we are suffering.

Although grief may be an unwelcome guest, may we show her great hospitality. Hosting our grief is a form of self-care that is so incredibly important. For, ultimately, it is our grief, a central part of who we are, that we are hosting. And she deserves the best of care. Make space for her at your table as a guest of honor.

If you are visited by grief in the coming weeks, I wish you radical self-care, connection with others that are worthy of the privilege of being with you in your pain, a peace that surpasses heartache and a hope that sustains you when such peace is not an option.

Tony Caldwell, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Oxford, Miss.

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