It’s the Least Wonderful Time of the Year: What Do the Grieving Want During the Holidays?
By Rebecca Hensler
It’s that season again.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” sings the supermarket loudspeaker, describing, “everyone telling you be of good cheer.” As if that’s a good thing. As if it’s okay to tell us how we should be feeling, just because of the season.
At Grief Beyond Belief, the secular peer-to-peer grief support community, this is one of the hardest times of the year. Members are struggling to carry on traditions, to care for grieving children, to meet the demands of culture, family and friends, to just keep breathing. It is the rare Christmas season that our online group moderators don’t spend at least one night trying to contact a member who has threatened to end their own life out of grief and despair. All the while, being told that it’s “It’s the hap-happiest season of all.”
And yet, even — or perhaps especially — at this time of year, there is comfort in community. Simply finding commonality in our experiences and feelings softens the sharp pains of a season in which the empty chair feels even emptier and the demands for good cheer make grieving feel harder not easier. Telling our stories to each other and reaching out for comfort free of those expectations doesn’t lessen the sorrow, but it does make us feel less alone with it. We are here for each other, as always.
But what can the non-grieving do to make the season easier — or at least not make it more difficult — for the grieving? I asked this question of the Grief Beyond Belief confidential Facebook group: “What do you want from the people around you at the holidays?” Here are some of their answers. Keep in mind while reading that, as always, everyone grieves differently. These are individual voices and we can each only speak for ourselves,
The most common answer is that we do not want the loved ones for whom they are grieving forgotten, or their absence ignored.
“I want everyone to share their memories of my dad and my brother. Don’t be afraid to bring them up. Yes I’m sad, but I’d be sadder if they were to be forgotten. My little brother loved Christmas so much. We put his favorite decorations in his untouched bedroom and cried. Hearing from family and friends their favorite memories helps me.“
“[I want people] to notice that he isn’t sitting beside me when I post a picture,”
“I just want people to talk about Scott. I don’t care if the memories or comments are funny, poignant or even cracks about him. Just let me know he mattered to you, that you hold those memories dear and that you won’t ever forget him. Going to a family gathering and not having one person mention him is so painful. Even one little passing comment means the world to me.”
“I want people to talk about Mom in a way that is genuine instead of rushed and minimal. I don’t want to not talk about her or not remember things about her. I want to tell stories with her in them.”
“What I want more than anything is for my three remaining adult kids to talk to me about their brother. What his loss has meant to them, memories, anything. I don’t care if we all sit around and cry. They haven’t forgotten about him. If we can’t talk about John, who in the hell can? Furthermore, it would be nice if they showed some interest in my mom and dad, whom they never knew. I would be honored to share what the people who shaped me were like.“
“Don’t not talk about my loss. Ask me about traditions with those I’ve lost and miss — remember them with me! It’s the greatest of gifts. No one is truly dead until they are forgotten.”
Others wrote of the pressure they are under, particularly at this time of year, to have moved on from their grief, rather than to still be learning to live with it.
“[I want people] to allow me to be sad and to realize that my sadness doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them or that they’re “not enough”– it has nothing to do with them in the slightest– and to stop trying to force feed me cheer or to change my sadness into something else.“
“I would appreciate validation from people around me that the holiday season is not a happy time for me.“
“Don’t tell me to “Just enjoy the season”, as if I’m to simply put away my memories of Christmas’ past, when Christmas past is the only Christmas I’ll ever have with my mother and siblings.”
“When he died just before the holiday season. I was devastated!. I’d break down crying all the time and couldn’t deal with life. Eventually, I was talking to someone about him and I realized I was smiling and feeling happy. It took a long time but my memories of him went from painful to some of my happiest ones. I think of him often and almost always smile. It happens, but it takes time. And don’t forget, everyone has there own time frame to get there.“
Understanding that grief has changed the season is also important. At a time when tradition becomes central for so many families, it can be hard to be seen as resistant to celebrating — or not celebrating — differently than in previous years
“I’d like family to not put pressure on me to do things the way I’ve done them in the past. To be okay with just letting me do it (or not do it) however I want. To be okay with me not knowing what I want to do.”
And some acknowledged that in the first holiday season after their loss, they themselves don’t know what to expect or ask for:
“This is my first holiday season without my cousin. The pain is so deep sometimes. I don’t know what I’m going to want or need. I’m living with my best friend and her family. And when they see me crying they usually ask “Cara?” And I’ll nod and accept their hug. They know there is nothing they can do or say to help.”
For many who are grieving, what they want others to understand is that if they themselves are not grieving, they do not understand what this time of year is like for those who are.
“Love me where I’m at. I am anticlimactic; I am depressed; I am without my son. I can’t get excited, I can’t act like I’m stoked about any gift or holiday “magic.” My body doesn’t produce the adrenaline or dopamine that helps me sound grateful, but please know that I am. Meet me where I’m at and allow me that space to honor my love and pain. Understand that you can’t thoroughly understand, and temper your pity and generic condolence faces. Instead, try not to skip a beat because of my suffering. Be conscious of your body language and the words you choose when addressing me about my son, his absence and what that might mean on this holiday.“
“Stop pressuring me to recreate my dead husband and my holiday traditions this year, my first year as a widow. I cannot possibly do that without totally losing my mind. But they won’t shut up and tell me I need to for my son (who is an adult!) — just no!”
“[I want] people to understand that I’m grieving, not to abandon me as they try to “give me space”, but to simply keep in mind that this is my first xmas without my son. This was going to be his first xmas, and he’s not here. But if they haven’t gone through it they don’t know what the pain is like, So I don’t ask or expect anything from them because they can’t connect with the pain I’m feeling. “
“Understand that my lack of holiday cheer isn’t a choice, its a physical and psychological disability. I’d love not to feel sorrowful.”
“Not to send a “Merry Christmas” message, but instead, to realize that it is not merry for me at all and to send a message recognizing that and being in my space for a moment rather than trying to drag me into theirs.”
There are no easy answers when it comes to grief during the holidays. A lot of the time we don’t even know what we want or need until we are in the moment. For me, especially in the early years after my son’s death what I needed more than anything was an escape hatch, a way to get away from the happy crowds when the moments that were sweetest for others — children lighting candles and playing with gifts — felt like a knife in my heart. So my recommendation is that if you know someone who is grieving, keep your eye on them, ready to ask, “Need a break?” and provide them with an out at short notice.
Some members, though clearly not all, want people to give them more space during the holidays, and listen when they say they want to be alone. One widow writes:
“I know this will sound like Scrooge, but I wish people would leave me alone – would respect my wishes. I told my friends and family that I planned to spend this Christmas by myself. I had planned my own little Christmas dinner, picked out two favorite Christmas movies to watch, even bought a mini-bottle of Amaretto to toast the Queen’s speech. They were all horrified. I couldn’t withstand the barrage and finally caved in to the pressure. Now, a friend is picking me up to spend tonight and tomorrow night at her house. I will be spending Christmas among the hubbub of other people, only one of whom I know. I will feel obligated to join in on small talk, politely listen about grandchildren and gifts and cruises, and instead of having myself a merry little Christmas,
Do I sound ungrateful? I don’t think I am. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and I didn’t want my family to feel they were somehow failing me. I don’t want to be someone’s charity case. Am I lucky to have people in my life who care? Of course I am; I recognize that. I want to be left alone, to make my own choices and to have them respected, instead of spending my holiday with someone else’s choices and in a way he and I never did.”
Clearly, it is so important to listen to what a grieving person says they need, and to ask rather than assume or project. Because many grieving people do want to be with others, they just want those others to remain aware of their grief and loss even in the midst of celebration:
“Togetherness matters. When life seems fleeting, and no moment is guaranteed, [I wish they would remember] the fragility of life and how incredibly lucky they are to have loved ones to celebrate with. Stressing over a late family member, a forgotten gift, or a burnt casserole is SO insignificant. For those of us who carry the heaviest of grief it’s highly offensive”
Finally, members of Grief Beyond Belief want others to remember that while they may or may not celebrate one or more of the season’s holidays, they remain nonbelievers and need that respected. But neither their grief nor their atheism means they want to be apart from those who love them.
“I would like them to understand that Christmas, while not being a spiritual time for me, is a time when I spend time with my family to share in their joy and love. And that even though I grieve at this time of year for those I’m missing, it’s not a call to try to convert me because I’m weakening and secretly wanting to believe. That wanting to share in the love of others is what is important regardless to the holiday or religion. It’s okay to include me because I love you and your happy times become my favorite times.”