Grieving at the Holidays

When I learned that my brother had ended his life, I stood clutching my then-4-year-old son’s hand. I crumpled to the hardwood floor outside his play room, clinging to his tiny frame like a life raft.

I let out small, staccato chokes.

“Get up, Mommy! You’re laughing, right?” he asked, confused.

When I called my sister, I managed only her name. “Lisa.” The chokes came again, swallowing my words. She too was startled, unsure if it was laughter.

On the day we buried Jim, I placed a flower on his casket and inched through throngs of people, to my mom’s grave. I lay prostrate, grass sticking to my sweat-and-tear-soaked face. Watching from a distance, my son scrambled to a grave and plunked himself, face-down. He felt safe following my lead, he later explained.

In hindsight it seems trite, the forlorn sibling falling to the ground. But my emotion wasn’t contrived. My out-loud mourning pointed to deep love and profound loss. It might also be called hard grieving, something Kay Warren has written about on her website:

“In traditional cultures throughout the world, the louder the mourning, the greater the love shown for the deceased. You might counter that that’s not the way Westerners handle grief. You are right, of course. But acknowledging this leaves me wondering: What are we supposed to do with our feelings when the people we love end their lives violently? How are we to feel when someone we love is murdered? When those dearest to us are ripped from our arms through an accident or illness? Are we comfortable with hard grieving at first, but less so when the grief doesn’t stop after a few weeks or months or years?”

Her piece is about grieving at the holidays, how it’s more painful when others ignore tragedies and loss. Warren lost her son to suicide in 2013. She urges readers not to send the typically cheery greeting cards, but supportive notes acknowledging a death. I agree.

Acting as if nothing has happened doesn’t help. Saying the wrong thing can be just as bothersome–for instance, suggesting that someone took his life because he was selfish. Perhaps the most irksome is, “You need to move on.” Add the holidays to the mix, and it’s a bitter cocktail.

Making Sense of Feelings

Someone knee-deep in grief needs space and time to make sense of his or her feelings. There’s no room for deadlines or expectations, particularly at the holidays, and on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Like Warren, I too have wondered what to do with my feelings about my brother’s death. A flock of emotions descends after a suicide: confusion, anger, frustration, despair, guilt, incredulity, doubt, ambivalence.

Jim passed away in September 2013, so my first holiday season came fast on the heels of it all. I bought plenty of gifts, decked my house and trimmed a giant tree. Still I couldn’t trick myself into feeling wonderful. Shadows dimmed the twinkling and jingling, mocking the season’s merriment. The world seemed as washed out as a weak watercolor painting.

Feelings are fickle and at times, faulty gauges of reality. But they must be honored. Ignoring them can be disastrous. One way I’ve channeled my feelings is into writing about depression and suicide. I’m seeking forums where I can talk about these topics, to help rewire the common logic that hard grief is somehow bad or unhealthy. This is partly healing for me and–I hope–helpful to others.

American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner has written, “The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.”

I pray that the experience of my brother’s suicide will fortify me for the days ahead. Something inherently bad can yield something surprisingly good—but it takes hard emotional work that we must be willing to do.

It’s important to acknowledge, too, that even though a bad thing can yield good, that good doesn’t erase the bad. Jerry Sittser, who lost his wife, daughter and mother in a car accident, writes about this in his book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss:

“The accident itself bewilders me as much today as it did three years ago. Much good has come from it, but all the good in the world will never make the accident itself good. It remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me. A million people could be helped as a result of the tragedy, but that would not be enough to explain and justify it.”

I’ve resolved not to try to make sense of why bad things happen. This side of eternity, chances are I won’t know why—and by the time I reach the other side, I suspect it won’t matter as much as I think it does. What matters more now is the ability to realize that the human experience is deeply rooted in both joy and sorrow. Our lives are dynamic expressions of this duality—not marred by sorrow, but richer for it. Coming to terms with this is a lifelong, character-building pursuit.

What to Do?

Grief manuals don’t come tailor-made, not for the people suffering loss or those looking to support them. I’m not a therapist, but I have a few ideas for helping others through grief at the holidays, or whenever. These are based on my personal experiences. They’re by no means comprehensive, but they’ve helped me:

1. Verbally acknowledge their sorrow. Talk to them face-to-face, on the phone or send a card. It doesn’t need to be poetic. Simpler is often better.
2. Show up. Offer to take out their trash, buy them groceries or watch their kids. Be available to listen to or sit with them.
3. Don’t suggest they should be moving on by now. Grief takes a lifetime, so rushing someone through it is pointless.
4. Tell them it’s OK to feel awful at the most wonderful time of the year. Affirmation is a gift.

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