For a lot of people, the holiday season is one that holds pain. As December rolls around and everyone makes their plans to go home to their families, or posts about their seemingly picture perfect holidays, there are many of us left feeling like we’ve missed a memo. The streams of fairy lights reflecting off damp cobblestone are great until suddenly everywhere you look there are endless reminders of family, togetherness, and consequently your thinly veiled grief. The human condition is one that exists in a series of dichotomies. As light cannot exist without the dark, and pain cannot exist without pleasure. For many, the emphasis on love, joy, and togetherness during the holidays brings with it the dull throb of grief and loneliness.
In the context of this letter, I want to clarify that I am not only talking about grief as a consequence of death but all the other forms of grief one can imagine as well. There is so much to grieve during the holidays: The recent loss of a loved one; a relationship; time away from family; youth; phases of life…
Many of us have chosen paths in which we live further away from our families than previous generations before us ever did. In a globalizing world, emigration seems to be second nature. Yet, we do not discuss the grief that comes with this relocation. One sacrifices a lot by making the choice to move away. For many it is not a matter of choice but that of necessity. For many, it means missing watching younger family members grow up; anxiety for the wellbeing of one's parents as they start to grow old; dread for the political situations of countries left behind; all hidden under the surface of the emotions that bubble up when you are confronted by a lonesome holiday. I suppose the only way to combat this grief is to look at why it exists in the first place. Why are you in the space you are right now? What led you here? Are the sacrifices you make worth it? If they aren’t, you have the difficult task of changing your trajectory when the wheels are already in motion. But it also means unity between your hopes and home. If your sacrifices indeed are worth it, to you I offer a Winnie The Pooh quote for comfort: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
On the flip side of that coin, there is the experience of tumultuous family relationships. Many people struggle with the family they go back to during the holidays. There is a grief to be spoken of in this experience. You grieve the dynamics and connection that you wished you would have with your family. For whatever reasons these needs aren’t met. You can grieve a past that never materialized. You can grieve your regrets. There is merit to the acceptance of one’s grief. Because once you can accept that this is in fact a form of grief, you can allow yourself to process it. You can recognize regrets or resentments and approach them as an opportunity. Perhaps this will bring about reflection that will ultimately result in difficult decisions such as limiting contact with people who no longer serve your wellbeing. Perhaps it will lead to building bridges that haven’t had the opportunity to be built before.
The holidays can also be a reminder of the passage of time. Many people have a relatively clear idea of what the holidays look like for them. Odds are the image you have in your mind is due to traditions passed down for generations. We will all -hopefully- experience the passage of time through the experience of being the child who believes in Santa, to the parent who plays Santa, to the grandparent who sits with their glass of wine, delighting in the shenanigans. With annual rituals such as these, perceptions of time warps. We get snippets of the holidays for about a week every year. So, in theory, if you were to stitch together your holidays as one massive montage, time would move 52 times faster. So one can only deduce that for some, the holidays bring about the grief of their youth, or phases of their lives that are now in the past. I don’t have any words of wisdom to share in this case, mainly because I’ve only recently graduated from the believing in Santa phase. I suppose all there is to say is to delight in the passage of time and fill the seconds with worthwhile memories. Drink good wine, eat good chocolate. Walk away from boring conversations. Sand runs too quickly to listen to the opinions of uninspired people.
Shards & Fractals
Grief is not a singular whole. It has shards and fractals. You are not just grieving the individual, but also all of the experiences once had and lost; and all of the experiences lost before they ever materialized. The thing about grieving is that it is an ongoing process that splinters further than you ever anticipate. It seeps into your happy memories in the form of an empty chair at the head of a table, a holiday tradition no longer upheld, any occasion momentous enough that they -whoever they may be- should have been there but aren't. How many times have you heard a song or smelled a perfume that belonged to someone who was no longer in your life and felt the slap of nostalgia on your cheek? That pang never truly goes away. Perhaps it dulls, but odds are it will persist.
I will grieve my father on my wedding day, on the day my children are born, as I did on the days my brother and I graduated from high school and university. These are only the cookie cutter, white picket fence milestones that I can predict. I will grieve him in many new ways that I will not expect. The way that I didn’t expect the strongest feeling on my 10th birthday, the first birthday I had after his death, to be sorrow. I have a friend who grieves his mother on his 24th birthday as she has now been gone for more than half of his life. The same way I grieved on my 18th birthday.
Just when you think you’ve felt the full extent of your grief for a person, a new milestone gives you a new experience to have missed out on, a new experience to have lost, to have been cheated out of. It resparks your anger, your sorrow, your guilt, thus you can grieve again. I believe that my friend is holding onto this feeling almost on purpose. When you lose someone as integral to your life so long ago, especially when you’re that young and don’t get the chance to form many memories with them, sometimes the most prominent emotion you have left with them is simply grief. When you think you’ve lost that pain too, and you finally get something new to grieve about their loss, you hold onto that. Because it feels like you are holding onto them. The pain feels the closest to your experience of them.
The truth is, grief never truly goes away. You don’t get over it. You learn to walk with it. And let it walk beside you.
I coined a term: “Post-mortem conversations''. They are the painfully one sided conversations you have with dead people as they tend not to be too talkative in my experience. These are conversations usually had in the wee hours of the morning. Often paired with one too many drinks. Sometimes it comes in the form of poetry, lyrics or a painting. Sometimes it's yelling into the void. Whatever form your post-mortem conversation takes, the main criterion is un-waivable, the recipient of your monologue must, under all circumstances, be dead. The distinction between 6 feet under kind of dead and “dead-to-you”, however, is not made. These are the people that you once loved -you probably still do, what with the drunken void-yelling- and lost, for one reason or another. They might have died, they might have left you to find themselves [most probably in the nether regions of another]. Either way, these are people that you find solace in. Maybe it’s because you still have questions to ask them about your past relationship. Maybe you need advice from them. It’s like praying; essentially your own personal WWJD.
I’m a big believer in the merits of a post-mortem conversation. Mainly for their versatility in applicability. If you believe in a higher power, or any form of spirituality in which this conversation makes its way to your lost one, fantastic! You have a platform through which you can communicate. You can tell them about your problems, and seek solace and refuge in their comfort. If you don’t believe in any form of spirituality, then see it as an act of self reliance. In having these conversations with your dead, you are essentially forcing yourself to imagine a second opinion, one of whom you probably once trusted. You can imagine these dialogues and in doing so anticipate the advice you would be given by your lost person. Looking at it in plain black and white, you might just be speaking into the silence. But you don’t need the silence to talk back if you can figure out your next step on your own.
So this holiday season I invite you to have a post-mortem conversation of your own. Don’t worry, it’s not witchcraft. I find it helps the process to be alone and to talk out loud. Think of someone you have questions for, someone you miss, or someone you need advice from. Simply start speaking to them. See if it goes anywhere. If not, you can write me off as the crazy lady who writes that newsletter you read sometimes. But you might just find that the dead have a way of invoking the answers from within you. Sort of like trapped gas, it just bubbles up.