NOTE: This post was written by Hannah Guzewicz
If you are someone in grief, the holidays can be an interesting time of year. There is so much merriment and joy; anticipation and celebration, and yet there is a natural counterbalance that happens for those who have lost a loved one which comes in the form of support and acknowledgement of your grief that may have been absent before. There are some seemingly universal truths that are experienced in grief but it can also be profoundly misunderstood. Some simply cannot comprehend that grief is not something one can “get over.” Some do understand this and still expect grief to follow predictable paths. Even those who have experienced grief themselves sometimes believe they understand what grief is for another person. If you have lost someone, you have likely counted the days, weeks, months, and years without your loved one, taken time to mark birthdays and death anniversaries, and felt some sort of obligation to keep that person alive in holiday traditions. These feelings and rituals can linger for many people.
Therefore, with any proximity to grief or if you yourself are grieving, you have undoubtedly seen essays, books, and social media dedicated to allowing space for grief during the holidays. There are reminders that you can and should take time for self care and that you do not have to enjoy the holidays. This is all true.
But what if your journey with grief has diverged a bit? My son died 5 and a half years ago when he was only 10 months old. It was unexpected and traumatic. He was happy and smiling in the morning and gone that afternoon. In the aftermath, I experienced all those countdowns and marking the passing of time but eventually the ceremony of all that started to hurt me more. I had to let go of keeping every single milestone sacred to care for myself. Today, while things are different and my choices aren’t what they would have been without loss, the holidays really are a joyous experience for me. I love the celebrations, music, and lights. I cherish the family time and traditions so often I end up feeling guilty that I’m not extra sad during this time of year.
It’s a hard position to explain to people. Losing a child at any point is excruciating and even many years later, trying to talk about that time doesn’t just bring up sadness for me. There is a physical crushing pain in my chest. It is hard to breathe and hard to swallow. The loss was life altering. I have deep wells of patience and grace for others that far exceed any I had before and also some fiery anger, intolerance, and fear that surprise me some days. I am a different person. Different not only because of life lived and lessons learned: different because the loss of my son changed my physical body, my emotional mind, and my soul. I will never be over that day. And yet, I can sometimes feel shame and guilt when people (with the kindest intentions) check in on me during the holidays and I am enjoying the season. In grief, certain times of pain are expected and yet I find the smaller less symbolic moments are when I feel most crippled. Like seeing a brother and sister walking home from school together knowing my daughters will never know their older brother. Or witnessing my older daughter teaching and protecting the younger and feeling so angry that she will never know the care of her older sibling.
The good news is that whatever loss you have experienced, there are multitudes of resources that can help you cope with grief in the minute-by-minute journey of finding how to live with your loss. And it is perfectly normal to experience sadness and stress around the holidays with grief. But despite the universality of grief, it is also deeply personal, so if the holidays are not painful for you, don’t let concern or care from others inject guilt into your experience. Joy, whenever it happens, does not diminish the love you had or the grief you will always carry. Hold onto the moments of joy you have and know that wherever your grief may take you, you are not alone.