"It's the most wonderful time of the year .. . . ."
Well, for some people, it is.
For others, the thought of "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" leaves them cold.
Grief is one human emotion which is not supposed to be part of either Advent or Christmas.
But, for many, it is.
It really doesn't matter whether or not their grief is just weeks or months new, or years or decades old.
It still hurts. As one woman whose husband died ten years ago said to me recently, "The other day when I was putting up Christmas lights, one string wouldn't work. I looked at it carefully and found one bulb that was out. And, because that one little bulb was out, the whole, entire string of lights wouldn't work. And, I thought to myself, that's exactly how it feels since my husband died. I've got my health, my children and grandchildren, my great friends and co-workers - all of which I'm deeply grateful for - but ever since his light went out, nothing else seems to work right."
Grief is not limited to death of a loved one. Divorce, family separation due to geographical distance, demands of work, family feuds, and ruptured relationships are just some of the losses we experience, the pain of which can be intensified during the holidays.
Oh, and don't diminish the pain of the loss of a pet. They are family members, too.
So, how to get through this Season of Advent with all of its "contemplation" and "joyful expectation"? How to prepare for Christmas?
Over the many years, I've been privileged to be a priest - and through my own experience of grief - I've developed bit of a Survival Guide.
Well, here are seven things that may help when Christmas hurts.
1. Accept your feelings, whatever they may be
The only cure I know for grief is to grieve. The paths your grief will take are many and will be different from anyone else's grief. You may also find yourself traveling several paths at the same time: anger, resentment, sadness and even guilt because you are feeling joy may all surface for you. Try to stay in tune with what you know to be true and good about yourself and acknowledge the feelings that you have are normal and part of being human. See all of your emotions as companions on your journey. Say 'hello' to anger when it appears and ask him to stand over here, please, while you both scontinue walking. "Ah, there you are!" you might say to sadness, and tell her you wondered where she had been hiding. Ignore your feelings at your own peril.
It can be helpful to participate in a related holiday ritual in memory of the person who has died. Some ideas: lighting candles for them, talking about them, buying children's toys or books to donate in their name, donating to a cause that was dear to their heart in memory of them, dedicating a prayer service in their name, planting a tree - if you can, in a place that brings a happy memory or would be otherwise meaningful - purchase flowers for the altar at church or temple or mosque, making a card or writing a letter which displays their picture or placing an item of theirs among holiday decorations.
3. If you need something, take a risk: Ask.
One of my dear friends found himself in an awkward and painful situation the first Christmas after his divorce. His children had planned to be on vacation with their spouses in in a warm place. He couldn't bear the thought of being alone. So, he picked up the phone and called some friends and asked what they were doing for Christmas. When they said they planned a "quiet Christmas at home," he said, "If I promise to be quiet, can I stay in your guest room?" They were surprised but delighted and said "Of course." He said, "I realize that I had leaned a lesson from the pain of the loss of my marriage: I am responsible for my own happiness. If I need something, I need to ask." (He reports that it was a 'different but very wonderful' Christmas, adding, "I am so grateful I spoke up.").
4. Feel free to say 'no'.
The other side of having wonderful family and friends is that they'll want to take care of your needs before you even know you have a need and have thought to ask. You may well be barraged with invitations to parties and social events. If you feel it will be too much for you and you'd like to simply opt out of participation in a holiday, let family and friends know. But, plan alternative, comforting activities for yourself and let someone know what you will be doing. Let them also know that it's okay if someone checks in with you on that day.
5. Consider something different
Don't hide from the truth that things have changed and that the holiday will probably never be the same as it was ever again. Accepting this - sometimes, it takes saying it out loud to yourself in the mirror - will help to manage expectations. This is especially important if you and your family plan to return to your usual routines and rituals after the first year. It's also okay to plan new activities - go to a new location for family celebrations change the menu, attend the theater, travel. Just understand why you are doing it - because this loss has changed your life and you are managing the best you can - and be honest about it, at least with yourself.
6. Scale back
Grieving can take an enormous amount of energy. Don't be surprised if the very thought of the holidays leaves you exhausted - emotionally and physically. For some people, it is wise to plan for this and manage the expectations you have of yourself. If the thought of many holiday activities feels painful, overwhelming or inappropriate this year, cutting back may help. For example, you might opt for minimal decorations at home and take a break from sending holiday greetings, or try e-greeting instead. You could limit holiday parties to small gatherings with your closest friends and family. Do whatever feels safe and comfortable to you. Create realistic expectations for yourself and others, but above all be gentle with yourself.
For other people who are grieving, sometimes the biggest comfort is to give to others. Some of us will feel paralyzed by the sheer emotion — sadness, feelings of helpless or hopelessness. In times of loss, grief compels some people to do something that will make a difference. For those folks, consider volunteering for an organization that helps others. Like:
Agencies that help the homeless or feed the hungry or assist families affected by domestic violence or partner abuse.
Assisting at hospital or nursing home reception desks
The ASPCA often asks volunteers to walk or or help feed or spend time with dogs or cats.
Community food banks need volunteers to stock shelves or counsel families
Local Thrift Shops need help with the registers, sorting through and sizing clothing, shoes and jewelry, testing (and repairing) appliances, or arranging attractive displays of furniture.
Or, for those who are struggling with divorce or separation or the rupture of a relationship, refuse to be defined by loss and make a donation to a worthy cause in your own name. Feel good about what you can still give despite your loss.
Again, being aware of why you are doing what you are doing - increasing your activites or scaling back, accepting your feelings, considering doing something different, saying 'no' to things you don't want to or simply can't do, taking a risk and asking for what you need - is absolutely key to grieving.
No, none of these things will cure grief. Only grieving will do that.
But, they will help you survive the holidays in the hopes that you may eventually find the 'comfort and joy' promised by the prophets of old and sung in the carols and hymns of Christmas.
Or, as my dear friend, Louie Crew Clay, says, "Joy Anyway!"