Holiday Wish List for the Grieving

Author: Jeff Brookshire

"Happy Hanukkah," they say. "Merry Christmas," they repeat. "Joyous Kwanza," they wish. But for some of us, happy and merry and joy are the remotest emotions of our heart. Especially during this season. Too many memories. Too many traditions. Too much pain. The empty chair at the dinner table. The one less present under the tree. The voice that filled the room with laughter now silent. While some sing that "It's the most wonderful time of the year," we feel conflicted because it seems to be not so wonderful for us.

Picking a Christmas Tree
Photo by Angela Powell Woulfe, Powell Woulfe Photography

If you are looking to this resource for the magic solution for finding happiness and merriness in this season, you won't find it. There is no magic solution. To get through the pain, you have to go through the pain.  As the children's song says, you can't go over it, around it, or under it. You have to go through it. But even though there is no magic solution, there are five wishes that I have for you this holiday season. Though you may not have happy holidays, at the very least I wish that you will experience healthy holidays when it comes to grief.

Holiday Wish #1: I wish for you to be authentic this holiday season.

When it seems like the whole world is joyful, allow yourself to experience the pain of your loss. With all of your power, resist the temptation to feel guilty for not being happy. Simply embrace the pain.  Don't try to squelch it. Don't try to repress it. Don't try to forget about it. Embrace it. You have experienced a very painful event and you have every right in the world to be sad, no matter what season it is.

Holiday Wish #2: I wish for you to be congruent this holiday season.

There is, as you know, a huge temptation to put on a happy face during this season. It's the time to be jolly, after all, and no one wants to be like the Grinch. You are supposed to be happy during the holidays, you tell yourself. You don't want to be a wet blanket on other's holidays, you exhort yourself. So you wrestle with the temptation to smile on the outside though you're crying on the inside. My wish for you is to be congruent - to be the same on the outside as you are on the inside. If you don't feel like smiling, don't smile. If you don't feel like laughing, don't laugh. But on the other hand, if you do feel like smiling, then by all means smile and laugh. Be who you are. Don't fake it.

Holiday Wish #3: I wish for you to be gracious this holiday season.

Sometimes, those who are grieving feel a sense of anger rush through their veins when watching others who are not grieving. Sometimes watching others who are happy can just downright make us mad. "How can they be happy when they know I am sad?" "It's not fair that they get to have their loved one this holiday season and I don't." "Why do they get to be so blessed and I'm not!" Anger is very common for the grieving, especially during the holidays. Anger, however, is a secondary emotion. It always has its roots in another emotion such as fear, hurt, shame, loneliness and many others.  So my wish for you is to be gracious with yourself as you identify why you are angry and then to be gracious with others to let them authentically and congruently experience what they are experiencing. In the end, you already know that the anger you have really isn't hurting them anyway. It is only hurting you. So give yourself the gift of graciousness.

Holiday Wish #4: I wish for you a fruitful memory this holiday season.

The tendency, I know, is to try to forget because of all of the painful feelings that flood our soul when we remember. Yet as painful as they may be, memories are amazing healers. They remind us of how thankful we are for the times that we have had and keep us connected in relationship with our loved one. So instead of acting as if the events of the past never happened, honor the past by allowing your memories to run rampant. Some suggestions I have heard for this are: make an ornament with your loved one's picture, cook your loved one's favorite meal in their honor, donate money in your loved one's name to a cause in which they believed, create a scrapbook of holiday pictures of you and your loved one, read a poem or prayer in your loved one's honor, light a candle for your loved one, watch your loved one's favorite movie, volunteer at a soup kitchen or other charity, etc. Whatever you do, let your memory be fruitful as you honor your loved one and what they mean to you.

Holiday Wish #5: I wish for you health this holiday season.

Obviously, I hope that you won't get sick this season, but it's not physical health that I am talking about here. It is mental health. If you are really struggling, I hope you will reach out for help. Especially if you are having thoughts about harming yourself or another, using alcohol or non-prescribed medications to ease your troubled emotions, isolating yourself from all relationships.  If you suspect you might be experiencing mental illness, or you don't have a support system to help you along in your grief journey be aware that it is OK to seek help.

If any of these feelings apply to you, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help by calling your doctor and/or setting up an appointment with a counselor. If you need help during the time that your doctor or counselor are not in, go to the nearest emergency room. Whatever you do, get the help you need when you need it. As always, TAPS is here 24/7 during the emotional holiday roller coaster.  You can call the Helpline night or day to talk to your TAPS family for support and caring.  

By Jeff Brookshire, MDVJeff is the Lead Bereavement Coordinator for LHC Group Hospice and is responsible for resourcing bereavement coordinators in over 60 Hospices across the nation.  He is a graduate of Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education and Duke University with a Masters of Divinity.  Before working in Hospice for the last nine years, he served as a pastor for 17 years.  Originally from Indiana, he lives with his wife of 31 years in Jefferson, Georgia.