Grief is complicated, and the grieving process can feel more difficult during the holidays. For me, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas often bring unexpected reminders of loss. And I don’t know why it surprises me. Loss is an inevitable part of life, and so is grief. But often, we want to attach time limits or set timeframes on our emotions, or only engage them when it’s convenient. But grief doesn’t work that way.
In 1997, I lost my first daughter at 26 weeks of pregnancy; she was born premature and died in my arms 20 minutes after her birth. In 2006, my first husband committed the Amish schoolhouse shooting. Within a few hours, I went from the everyday predictability of life as a stay-at-home mom to the unknown as a widowed single parent. And then, in 2011, I lost my father after his eight-month battle with lung cancer. I hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology and have spent much time studying the impact of trauma. I understand grief from a personal and professional standpoint.
Here is what I know: grief is not linear. It comes when we least expect it and usually when it’s inconvenient. Contrary to previous beliefs, there isn’t a path of predictable stages—a more individualized view of the grieving process has replaced the Kubler-Ross model. While you may feel anger, denial, acceptance, times of bargaining, depression, guilt, and other emotions, they will ebb and flow and sometimes come back after you thought you had already worked through them. And this understanding gives us grace for our process because there isn’t a wrong way to grieve. Your way is the right way.
Often, the most intense part of the grieving process lasts six to twelve months, while everyday grief experiences can last through the first two years. We may feel like we’ve lost our sense of purpose, have an aversion to activities we once enjoyed, feel numb, have trouble embracing the reality of life without our loved one, and experience times of intense emotion. We’ll have good days and bad days. This is normal.
Common Misconceptions About Grief
Some say that time heals all wounds, but this isn’t true. Grief doesn’t get easier as time passes. Instead, we learn how to navigate life without the person we’ve lost. We’ve never done life this way before, and it is hard. We find ourselves wanting to call them on the phone, send a text, or we think about something we want to say the next time we see them. And then reality comes crashing back in, reminding us that these conversations won’t happen.
My dad passed away on Christmas Eve morning, almost eleven years ago. And in the following season, I had to learn how to live without him. I was used to talking to my dad daily and visiting him several times each week. We had a close relationship, and it was hard to think about the reality of this new version of my life.
It was a gradual letting go, and some days were easier than others. I wanted to hold tight to my dad’s presence, his memories—his love. I didn’t want to accept the reality that he was gone. And nothing was healing about the passage of time. In the years since his death, I’ve gotten better at living without him. I’ve “built these muscles,” after eleven years of practice, I can acknowledge that it’s not as hard as it was those first few years.
But sometimes, the comments we hear from others cause us to question ourselves. They infer that we should be “back to normal,” when it’s hard to find normal again. They want to place a time frame on our process. And it causes us to question if we’re doing it the wrong way, but the truth is, they may not have first-hand experience with this type of loss. Or our grief may trigger a memory that causes them pain.
Throughout the first year, we’re embracing the birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries we once shared with the person we’ve lost. And within each “celebration” is the reminder that this new reality is painful.
Giving Grace While Grieving
And the most important thing we can do is give ourselves grace for this season. Grace looks like scaling back our expectations, embracing our emotions, and telling ourselves we’re doing it correctly. Giving grace means mourning traditions while embracing new ones, allowing ourselves to feel both happy and sad simultaneously, and creating boundaries when necessary. In our grief journey, we need a support system. We need friends and family members we can count on to help us through the hard days.
It’s okay if you’re stuck in grief and didn’t put up your Christmas tree this year. It’s okay to avoid certain traditions or people because you don’t want to deal with additional layers of pain. You will not look back and feel like you should’ve kept the traditions. Instead, as you learn to give yourself grace, you can look back and know that this was a different kind of year, where you prioritized your emotional well-being. And that’s a good thing.
You’re not weak or broken, and you will find your way through. But your path is uniquely yours. You can gather suggestions and perspectives from those who’ve walked a similar grief path, but your journey won’t look exactly like theirs. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all program for grief recovery. You can choose what this looks like, and your choices may vary daily.
Along Your Grief Journey
Each day, you’re choosing to do your best with what you have. Your best today will undoubtedly feel different than your best tomorrow. And just because you had a good day today doesn’t guarantee a good one tomorrow. But as you allow yourself the space (and grace) necessary to process your loss, you will heal. And as tempting as it is to try to push the feelings aside and pretend it doesn’t matter, avoidance won’t lead to healing. It only delays the inevitable. And if we try to dismiss our pain, it usually leaks over into other areas of our life, and we take it out on those we love.
If I could go back to my first loss (the loss of my daughter), I’d tell myself that this would be one of the most painful seasons of life, and there would be days that I’d feel like I wasn’t going to make it. But the best way through the pain is to allow someone else to walk with me. One close (trustworthy) friend or family member makes a huge difference. Because as we share with them, we’re no longer the only one carrying the load.
Resources To Help You Heal
So, friend, if you’re walking a grief path this season, ask someone to walk with you. Invite them into your journey and remind them that you’re not asking them to fix it; you simply need them to listen. Talk about the person you’ve lost, find meaningful ways to honor their memory, and give yourself grace for each moment.
Grief shows us that we’re still alive inside, and it honors the legacy of the one we lost. They mattered. As we embrace the grieving process, we will find healing.
You can find additional insights on grief through my podcast and book entitled, To Help You Heal. Look for podcast Episodes 21 & 22 focused on dealing with grief. You can find To Help You Heal (podcast) on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts, as well as my website. You’ll find the book on Amazon, or grab a signed copy from my website! If you need help walking through your grieving journey, send me a message. I’d love to support you!
You’re not alone.