Over Thanksgiving break, I had the deep and morbid displeasure of attending a five-year-old’s funeral. I’d known the family for over a decade. I used to play with their two oldest kids during summers off of school, and I’ve babysat for them on more than one occasion. I’m not a stranger to the somber parts of life, but there is something deeply haunting about witnessing a family you have known practically your whole life lower a small white casket six feet in the ground.
I think the saddest part of the whole weekend was the acute awareness that a family I loved was going to begin the grieving process over the holidays. I know what that’s like, and it might be the most excruciating experience I have gone through. Grieving in general is about as pleasant as swallowing saw dust, and grieving over the season of family, miracles and holiday cheer is abominable. If you are finding yourself in the situation where grief or old traumas are being drudged up during the holidays, or worse, you are grieving during this time, know that you aren’t alone, and that it’s okay to process these emotions during the season of all things holly and jolly.
I guess I have to elaborate on my sob story for credence; about six years ago, my dad, the unstable addict referenced in a prior column, had a violent psychotic break and left my disabled mom, my 9-year-old brother and I two weeks before Thanksgiving. He told us that he was going to rehab to get help and that he would be back by Christmas. Imagine our surprise when six Christmases passed, and he never showed up.
Although I didn’t physically lose my father to the bitter finality of death, processing parental abandonment still required a hefty amount of grieving. Obviously, I can only speak for myself and my experiences, but I’ve found that emotional pain from a trauma and grief both have a nasty habit of coming back at random, inopportune times.
A lot of these unfortunate times for old wounds to be reopened end up being around the holidays. You hear a song that recalls a memory, or you smell something that reminds you of the person, and it hits you like a sledgehammer to the gut — they’re gone, and life is forever changed because of that.
My experience with losing my father felt comparable to when amputees lose a limb but still feel phantom pain in the empty space where a part of themselves used to occupy. When you lose someone, be it through death, abandonment, etc., it feels like a part of you left with that person, and everything feels just a bit warped, like a fever dream that you just can’t wake up from.
Rationally, it makes sense that grieving and past traumas would be brought up around this time. Holidays serve as endless pools of childhood memories and nostalgic references that feel dampened by whatever loss you’re enduring.
Of course the old cliches are true: it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, and time really does heal all wounds. I know no one wants to hear that, but cliches tend to be cliche because they are true.
You will feel okay again. It probably won’t be today, tomorrow or even a week from now, but one day it’ll sneak up on you and you will realize you haven’t thought about crying that day. Holidays are always a bit dodgy, but the first year of grieving is the worst. After a few years, you start to make new memories, and you learn to go on.
During seasons that feel the worst, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Set boundaries for yourself and have the wherewithal to be present in your emotions, no matter how intense they feel. Cry, scream, eat, all the works. Pain is valid in all forms, and you are valid in the pain you feel.
I can’t promise that the holidays will be bright and cheery immediately, but, with time and emotional labor, the most wonderful time of year will feel wonderful again.
Christmas lights will one day feel like magic, and carols will sound like coming home once again. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the sun will rise on Christmas morning, but while you are in the darkness, allow yourself to grieve and heal under the cover of a silent night.