Janet looked around the room. Candles set up, just like always. The holiday cards tucked into that special basket. Her neighbor’s gift was still on the counter, though. Janet could not look at it right now. The visit was fine, but it felt like something was missing. Her heart screamed inside, “Missing? Everything is missing! Tom is missing!” Standing in the hall, Janet tried to feel grateful for her neighbor’s kindness. But all she felt was her overwhelming sadness.

Our journey through loss and grief is one of the most difficult experiences we face as human beings. We are confronted with the absence of a loved one, feel the pain of that emptiness and, somehow, must try to function in our daily lives. The intensity of that absence is felt most acutely during the holiday season. We are surrounded by high expectations and lifelong traditions that are in direct contrast to the gaping hole in our hearts after a loss.

Janet, like many of us, tried to manage the many expectations in a good year. When loss collides with the holidays, though, we are often struggling to survive. There are a number of things we can do that may help in practical ways; More importantly, they may raise our awareness of the role that conscious grieving plays in our lives.

Conscious Grieving

Typically, we return to the patterns of our family background to respond to loss. Some may be helpful, but some styles may include shutting down feelings, keeping really busy or avoiding any reminder of our loved one. These patterns fit easily into the pressured holiday season. Conscious grieving, on the other hand, is just that: staying conscious of our loss. When someone’s name is mentioned and the urge to cry arrives, we honor our feelings and their memory by letting the tears fall. We might make a new ornament this year—such as a mini-picture frame or painted glass balls—that include our loved one in our decorations. We might just sit quietly for a morning or evening, taking time to treasure the gift of our loved one at this time of gift giving.

The Heart of the Holiday

Again, the societal pressure for the many activities at this time can be too much for any of us. This is especially true for those with grieving heart. This is the time to remember Longfellow’s words: “The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; the secret anniversaries of the heart.”

Christmas and Hanukkah carry very specific rituals and traditions; in contemporary times, we are constantly on the go to complete them all. Sometimes, the heart of the holiday gets lost. When we place a focus on the spiritual message of the season, our grieving hearts can find comfort. The lighting of candles can include a memorial prayer, for example, including our loved one in the moments of quiet. The family nativity scene could be enhanced by adding a seashell or ceramic bird, reminders of their gratitude of God’s creation. When we actively bring our loved one’s memory within the message of love, love and healing is increased.

Grief is our Ally

Our arrival in the “land of loss” may feel like sinking into quicksand or being catapulted through space. We have no control over any of it. Our grief, however, is our companion in this new and painful place. Grief is our ally and will not abandon us even during the holiday season. Our task is to listen and trust our instincts; they are leading us to healing. If a holiday party seems too daunting, don’t go. Grief lets us know when it’s time to be alone. Another alternative is to plan to be there an hour, then leave for home with a cup of cocoa or a special TV show waiting. All choices should include an element of self-care as this is a time of nurturing and support.

Janet knew things would change when she was with her family. She would lose the quiet needed to check in with herself and to listen deeply as she navigated this first holiday without her beloved. Without explanation to anyone, she found the perfect bowl and placed it on her night table. Each night, Janet dropped a little glass pebble in the bowl and named the gifts of that day: the neighbor’s visit, a bittersweet memory, an opportunity to bake cookies for the shelter. Painful feelings often accompanied her thoughts, but, at the same time, she felt the grace of her grateful heart as she watched the bowl fill up. Love became tangible for Janet, sustaining her at this vulnerable time.

We are human beings, fragile and flawed. At the same time, we carry wisdom that can lead us to moments of healing and love. May this holiday season bring light into our darkness, hope into our hearts.

Lisa Irish, MEd, MA, BCC, offers hospital chaplaincy, spiritual direction and retreat experience to help with healing and transforming loss. She is the author of several publications and a new book, Grieving – the Sacred Art: Hope in the land of Loss. Connect at LisaIrish.com.

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