I once heard someone describe grief as reorienting to a world in which the person you love no longer exists. It’s a long, confusing, deeply painful process that never really completes.
Whether your typical response to holidays is diving headfirst into lights and decorations, or avoiding them entirely, everything changes after losing someone close. Managing grief during winter and the holiday season feels like revisiting many of the rooms whose doors you thought already closed.
Unlike other personal anniversaries, the holiday season seems to conspire against you. Navigating grief can be especially difficult when it seems like the entire world is celebrating. Grieving a special day in mid-spring is difficult enough. Struggling through weeks of office parties, holiday music, and reminders of a persistent absence takes considerably more effort.
Some people find it impossible to follow annual traditions without their loved one. Others view these continuations as a way to honor those no longer at the table. It is exceptionally personal. There is no “right way” to navigate holidays or anniversaries of special days.
My Mom was the heart and soul of our holidays. She baked pies, decorated the house, and made sure that we were all together for at least one day. She was an excellent gift wrapper and continually mislabeled our presents. Eventually, we became conditioned to temper our enthusiasm when opening them, because there was a 50/50 chance that whatever cool item waited inside was actually intended for someone else. It was hilarious, and I can’t let myself realize that it will never happen again.
I started calling these moments the “nevers”. And the holiday season is full of them.
Remember that one holiday song? The one where you made up wildly inappropriate lyrics and others pretended to be offended, even as they cracked up the entire time? Yeah, that song is going to play while you’re in line at a coffee shop. You’re going to leave and cry alone in the car, still hearing your loved one insisting that “you need Jesus!”, because saying anything else was too difficult through a barrage of giggles.
The “nevers” are those stark realizations that spring up unexpectedly. Like stepping on a patch of black ice, suddenly your entire sense of balance and composure is thrown. Eventually, you find solid footing again; or you don’t, and fall flat on the sidewalk. Either way, just know it’s going to happen while you reorient to this new reality.
What’s important is understanding that you can get through, no matter how impossibly overwhelming it feels to cope with the “nevers.”
Lay on the sidewalk as long as you need, but remember that you don’t have to live there indefinitely. And your loved one wouldn’t want you to.
I used to hate when people said that. Partly because what the hell did they know, but also partly because they were right. The person you lost doesn’t want you sprawled on the sidewalk, crying and coffee-less. Unless it’s because of something stupid and it’s kind of funny that you’re floundering around like an epic snow turtle. Then they might, but only until it stopped being funny. Eventually, they would have stopped with the bent-over giggling and helped you up. So let them.
Once you get up from the sidewalk, don’t minimize your feelings. If you are mourning the loss of a pet, your favorite aunt, or anyone else—those pangs of grief are valid, and very real. Beating yourself up because of the time elapsed is a fruitless distraction. It keeps you focused on something other than processing emotional responses.
Sometimes it’s easier to deal with self-punishment than grief. Because at least self-punishment is within our control.
Keep moving forward, and trust that you’ll get through.
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