Good grief. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Joy to the world. Have a holly jolly. I wish you a merry. What fun it is to ride and sing and walk in a winter wonderland. It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Yes?
Or no? Depending on your circumstances, it can also be the least wonderful time of the year. It can feel downright scary, worse than haunted houses on Hallowe’en.
We know it’s just not right to exude doom and gloom at this most wonderful time of the year, but what the hell are you supposed to do if you’re newly grieving?
In a blog from last year, On Behalf of the Grieving at Christmas, writer Leanne Friesen does a great job of articulating her experience of pain during this happiest of seasons. But she has to do it in the form of a letter to herself two years after the loss of her sister. Why? When you’re new to it, you’re usually so stunned, so disconnected, you don’t know what you want, need. You can’t describe this odd place you find yourself in. I had lunch with a widow friend the other day and she remarked how she didn’t know she’d have to relearn the entire English language so she could communicate with people again. Lambasted by big loss, it’s like we shrink back to babyhood, need a couple of years to figure out how to hold that head upright, get walking, talking.
First and foremost on Friesen’s list of requests? “Be patient with me.” A person new to grief might not know what it is that will set them off or shut them down – a song, a decoration, the sight of other families connecting.
I’ve been thinking back to that old – or should I say young, as in baby? – Rita who had just lost her husband Hugh. She couldn’t have told you what she needed on those long ago Christmases, but she sure can tell you now what she appreciated, what helped her get through:
- Thoughtfulness. My mother-in-law came over on that first Christmas Eve and took my young niece and nephew out to play in the snow. Their red, smiling faces gave me joy. People were so kind to me that first year, showing up with extra gifts. I distinctly remember a beautiful one from my sister. She and I hadn’t exchanged gifts in years and I didn’t even feel guilty about not buying her one. It was such a wonderful surprise, it felt like it made up for not getting one from my husband.
- A Ride. I lived in the country, not on the route of most family members and friends. Whenever anyone picked me up and I didn’t have to drive, I felt giddy, like a child. I’d stare in wonder at the Christmas lights. An especially magical night was when one couple – good friends of Hugh and myself – said to be ready at a certain time. Well, there was a great live show playing at The Grand Theatre that year and I convinced myself that’s where they were taking me. I got all dressed up, did my nails, then, on the way into town, gawked at the amazing display of lights on this traditional house and barn just up the road. The surprise turned out to be even bigger as they took me to the backroom of a bar where many friends and family members were waiting to give me a send-off, as well as more Make-A-Wish Foundation donations, for my climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
- Visits with Friends. When you’re used to sharing your life with someone, their disappearance from your daily routine is glaring. You suddenly spend so much time with just yourself, alone, voice drying up, thoughts rattling around, that you start to wonder if you even exist. I don’t know if this was near Christmastime or not, but one night a group of my girlfriends showed up with Swiss Chalet and wine and we sat around my kitchen table, gabbing, eating, drinking, laughing, crying. I felt human again.
- Time Alone with My Children. The second Christmas after Hugh died I took my three kids to Dominican Republic. And they didn’t bring any friends. Prior to Hugh’s death, one of the kids often brought a friend along when we travelled. I didn’t think about it at the time – and, due to our various trajectories on our grief journeys, it wasn’t one of our best vacations – but it was healing for us to spend time together as a family of four. You know, to practice being that different number.
- A Co-Host. If you have a friend who has recently lost a spouse this Christmas, offering to help them host if they are having family or friends in is one of the nicest things you could do. When you’re used to a partner, you know, to hang up coats, pour drinks, stir the gravy, etc., entertaining alone the first few times is quite baffling.
- Acknowledgement of Loss. As Friesen says in her blog, “Please don’t send me a Christmas card with a quick message at the end saying ‘Hope you have an amazing Christmas!’ I probably won’t.” Far better to acknowledge the loss, the struggle. Offer help, but as we know a griever could be so stunned they don’t know what they need, so drop by with a gift, food, a movie, time, an ear, a shoulder to cry on, a ticket to ride, or a set of hands to stir gravy.
Have a Caring Christmas and a Thoughtful New Year!