C.S. Lewis said “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” This can be especially true during the holiday season. Here are three big ones I faced during the first few Christmases without my mother, and my advice looking back.
Fear #1: Christmas will hurt me
We are somewhat inclined to believe that Christmas is a supreme entity. Christmas is coming and it’s going to do terrible things to me. The reality is that Christmas is made of moments like any other day that will be filled with our own actions, emotions, choices, thoughts, and words. Christmas itself cannot hurt us.
If you are like me, you have probably experienced a “random grief attack” somewhere like the grocery store aisle. We see mom’s favorite can of soup. We have a mini-meltdown. We dry our eyes and move on to frozen pizzas. The thing that makes Christmas sadness different than can-of-soup sadness is our anticipation of it; our anticipation produces fear which is often worse than reality. While the soup attack takes a few moments to get over, we curse ourselves by dwelling on Christmas like the end times – paralyzing our ability to let grief flow through us in the moments it naturally comes to us.
There is no medicinal quality in trying to determine “what Christmas will do to us this year” – it’s important to let our emotions come as they are, no matter what day it is. This also means that we don’t have to be sad because it’s Christmas. How about we just throw out our calendars and feel sad whenever we do, okay? Let’s focus on what’s happening right now.
Fear #2: Things won’t be the same
We are terrified for things to be out of our control on Christmas Day. It’s the one day of the year that we can revert to childhood comforts and bask in the familiarity of everything that’s home to us. But we ALWAYS have cinnamon buns in the morning. Who put out bagels??
If you’ve experienced the melding of traditions in marriage, you have an idea of what it can mean to fear losing this safe place; each spouse cautiously pokes unfamiliar turkey around their plate or sceptically bites into a foreign cookie recipe… Let’s face it, you never paid much attention to mom’s famous stuffing until your spouse plopped a new one in front of you – all of a sudden her stuffing means everything.
Grief is this, in the extreme form. You don’t want anything more stolen from you than what has already been stolen. Fair enough. But because fear is so incredibly draining I’m going to say this: Maybe, especially the first year, maybe letting go of the stuffing recipe for now is okay. There may be more important places to direct your emotional energy that day. You can come back to the stuffing next year when everyone is ready – the recipe will still be there; your memories will still be there. I promise, as difficult as it is, you are not forgetting or disrespecting your loved one if you let things change this year.
Fear #3: My loved ones may not behave how I want them to
As people can be a bit touchy on those first Christmases, a sad heart might be perceived as a grumpy one; a happy heart might be assumed an insensitive one, and so on. I remember holding my breath, praying that everyone would carry on normally and try to make the best of it. I clung to the emotional traditions of Christmas. Please everyone make this a happy day. Don’t disappoint me. Nobody be sad. These thoughts were a form of trying to control others and left no room for people to be what they really were. Not everybody will be ready to try for normal, or even happy – they each have their hopes and fears lingering under the surface. And this doesn’t mean you should feel ashamed if you are happy.
It’s bound to be a bit confusing and chaotic until you learn how to fit it all together – and you may very well feel something similar to homesickness in the process. But if I could go back to the first year, I would look myself in the eye and say let it be. Let them be. And communicate with each other about what you need – the more, the merrier (literally).
As the years go by, Christmas brings with it a restored depth; the fear and aching take a back seat. They still exist in different forms, but they do not define the season. For the sake of my emotional health and Christmases future, I have had to let go of and grieve Christmas past. It’s not easy to leave memories where they are and build new ones, but it’s necessary – and it takes several years of fumbling through Christmases to achieve this. We have time. The good news is there is no such thing as “wasting” a Christmas if things don’t go well. The truth is that these first messy Christmases just need to be had so that we can build on them to get to better ones. Unfortunately we only get once a year to practice, but they do get better (if we want them to).
I send my love to all of you as you prepare for the holidays, whichever number this might be for you. May your fears be comforted and love be felt deeply in your spirit.