Friday, December 19, 2014

Grief, holidays, things not to say

I've heard over and over that the first year of grief is the worst and that the holidays are particularly hard. The first year holds all of those land mine dates - the first birthday, the first memory of the illness, the first round of personal marks in the year and so on. The holidays are supposed to be a time of family festivity and so hold many reminders that the one we love most isn't here.

I can't say anything about the truth of the first year being the worst since I am still in the midst of it. I can say the holidays make everything feel more acute. Just as joy is enhanced by the accumulated weight of memories, so too is sorrow. I have many sweet memories of this time of year with Kevin. His delight in decorating, cutting down trees with the kids, bickering about what to get whom, his face as he watched us open gifts, the sacred moments of connection. I cannot tell you how much I want him here. Of course, every day has these moments regardless of the holidays. Hugging him on the staircase when he comes home from work, washing dishes together, his patient annoyance with me as I ask him to catch me up on his tv shows, the warmth beside me in bed, the sacred moments of connection. It is all there, all of this memory and loss, all of this life, held in stark contrast to where I am living now. The holidays just make it more acute. Maybe it's the media, maybe it's the zeitgeist, maybe it's just part of being alive.

Whatever it is, it sucks.

That being said, I am at least able to be grateful for the memories and for the time I will spend with those I love over the coming weeks. This gratitude doesn't mean I am grieving any less, just that I have broader vision now.

I think part of the holiday problem for those who grieve is that we stand out in stark contrast to those who have not suffered this kind of loss this year (they will eventually, and then it will be our job to walk beside them and point out land mines as they navigate the land of grief). This year I am an object lesson to remind everyone to be present in their love while they can be. This year I am the embodiment of the lack of Kevin.

Because grievers are in such contrast this time of year, I have found that over the past few weeks more people are saying things that don't help. I know it's done with the best of intent but, I assure you, I am still grieving even if I don't look like it at the moment. I've written before about what helps and what doesn't; this list still stands. My perspective has changed a little, since I am almost 9 months in, so I have some new thoughts on the matter. Here is a quick list of things to keep in mind if you are spending time with the bereaved over the holidays.

  1. Telling me how I feel doesn't help. I wrote recently about faking it. It isn't that I hurt any less. The loss is still traumatic and acute. It's that I've become better at functioning in the day-to-day. I've become better at seeing how my grief distresses you, so I don't share it with you as much. Telling me that I must be feeling better because I'm smiling suggests you have some insight into my feelings beyond my own. I know I'm smiling because it still feels unfamiliar on my face. Instead please just welcome it. Be in the moment with me and don't tell me how I'm feeling. 
  2. Grief is non-linear. There are no corners to turn, no bill boards that will announce GRIEF AHEAD or NO MORE GRIEF IN SIGHT. I may seem fine one moment and the next tear up. Laughter, tears, chattiness, quiet are all part of grieving because they are all part of life. If I start crying it's not your fault. It likely has nothing to do with you, it's just another wave of grief.
  3. Let me lead. If I'm crying I may or may not want to be touched. I know this isn't true for all grievers but I'm pretty good at asking for what I need, be it a hug or to be left alone. My life is all about the things I had no control over; let me control what I can.
  4. Don't pretend Kevin never existed. I love talking about him. I often love hearing your stories about him. Not all the time, but don't think the 15 years I spent with him have just vanished. Let him be part of the conversation.
  5. And please don't try to console me with platitudes. I'd rather you be quiet with me or tell me you don't know what to say. Telling me that Christmas is extra special this year because Kevin is with Jesus doesn't help me. If it helps you that's great, but for me all it does is accentuate his loss.

I'm not trying to be harsh with this list. I'm trying to find a way to make the holidays safer for me and for all the others who grieve. I'd love to hear what works for you and what doesn't. What you have found comforting.

Mostly I am grateful that you are here. Thank you for being on this journey with me. May the holidays and coming year bring us all ease.

(38 weeks. I love you. I hope you like the Hanukah candles.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Beautiful written, Laura. You've captured it. Well done!

  2. Exactly Ellen.I too am just past the 9 month mark.I need to share this.Just yesterday I made a comment on FB and someone said something completely ignorant instead of saying something like We miss him too.Would have helped but this person acts as he never existed.

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  4. Love and light to you, Laura. Well said and thank you for sharing. I've long thought of creating a guide for others, on how to console those in grief (because so many, unintentionally, get it so wrong). In its entirety, it'd come down to one word though, and that's, listen.
    It’s been 10 years since the untimely loss of my brother. Learning to navigate grief is a long, arduous process and (at least for me) endless, I've come to terms with this. That's not to say there is no hope. Hope was found when I found myself at a crossroads with my grief. I realized that I could allow it to consume me wholly or let it wash over in waves. Every day for survival I choose the latter.
    Just as seas are rough at times and calm in others, so too is grief. It will never go away, nor do I want it to, as crazy as that may sound. It’s the reminder of moments that were so damn good that we grieve we’ll not have the chance to do more with those we've lost. I think the depths of grief are measured by the depths of our love. Grateful for all the moments past and for the moments now to remember, cry, scream, rejoice, love, to live.


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