Grief and Loss During the Holiday Season

The Holidays are an interesting time, for therapists.  We don’t exactly have a Christmas rush (nobody shops for therapy sessions on Black Friday).  In fact, most of us have a slow December, due to clients traveling and visiting family.

For me, my office is quiet during the week of Christmas, but I always offer to be there at least one day during the week.  Inevitably, there will be a few people who need a session.  For me, this season is about gratitude, hospitality and giving back to the community.  In the spirit of that, it feels appropriate to offer a few office hours for those who need it.

I speak of joy, gratitude and service, noticing the physical feelings of warmth that come with those words as I watch the snow outside.  I do what I do because it feels coherent with my intuitive sense of what is important to me.  Sometimes, those sessions offer an opportunity for something truly beautiful to unfold.  When people take that extra hour for self-care, they can rest in the eye of the storm and take a break from family expectations.

When people have experienced childhood trauma, those December sessions can be particularly important.   Sometimes people find themselves visiting with their abuser, or perhaps visiting with the family member who could have stopped the abuser…and didn’t.  In many cases, people make a decision not to go home to see their family.  This is never an easy choice, but sometimes it is a necessary one.

Holidays are also sometimes a reminder of the people who are no longer in our lives, who we may never see again.  Wounds experienced from deaths that occurred during the year may be opened afresh.

Death is never simple.  While we may love the people who we have lost, there is often unfinished business.  We may miss our loved one, but we may experience an array of complicated emotions, including anger for past injuries inflicted by the person while they were alive.  At the same time, we may also remember the times when that person was warm and caring.  It can be difficult to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory feelings.

The same applies with family members who we have cut off.  We may miss them, even though we cut them off for a good reason.  Even if our relationship with them was profoundly dysfunctional or very distant, we may still grieve the loss of that person in their life.  It is entirely valid and possible to grieve the loss of a relationship that we never had.  We may be grieving the loss of years when we did not experience love or safety in our lives.  These are years that we will never get back.  Despite the profound sadness that can occur with this realization, there is also the newfound revelation that we were, at all times, completely deserving of that love.  It can be the beginning of learning to give that love to ourselves.

In my practice I have found, time and time again, that some of the most beautiful moments of illumination occur on the darkest winter nights.  So, it’s worth it for me to keep the lights on at the office.

With regards to those complex emotions that we all experience , what I want to say is this:  It’s all true.  We have joyful memories of our families, AND we have trauma.  Our loved ones did their best to be good people, AND they harmed us.  We feel anger toward them, AND we feel love.  We miss them, AND we know that we cannot go home.

If grief were only sadness, it would be simple.  Very rarely is sadness the only thing we feel. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give ourselves in times of grief is to let all of our emotions have a voice.  We can give them a welcoming place around the fire of compassionate awareness.  To turn them away is to reject a part of ourselves, which only leads to more suffering.

The Holidays can be fun and enjoyable, AND it’s OK if we hate them sometimes.  It is OK to refrain from putting up a Christmas tree, or to put up a giant, over-the-top Christmas tree as a celebration of reclaiming the Holiday for yourself.  Follow your impulse.  Trust yourself.  This season can mean what you need it to mean, for you.  The only advice that I have, for those reading this, is to avoid letting the Holidays be a time when your own needs are not honored.  When we are experiencing grief, we need more self-care, not less.

I wish everyone a peaceful season, filled with warmth and support.

-Bridget M. Blasius, MA, SEP

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