Holidays and Celebrating Those We’ve Lost

Originally published November 2012.

The holiday season approaches once again and whether you are looking forward to it or dreading it, remembering the person or persons you’ve lost can be a healing experience. I like the way Mary Oliver phrases it in her poem “Heavy” that she wrote soon after losing her life partner of over 30 years.

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—

books, bricks, grief—

It’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance it, carry it.”

Popular culture tells us we are supposed to be joyful, cheery and warm and filled with family and friends at the holidays. Grief, however, often invades this time and we experience sadness, pain and loneliness. Life changes when we lose someone we love and changes our experience associated with the holidays. Grieving is an inseparable part of your holiday experience. Friends of ours no longer have mother and father who made Hanukkah rituals such a warm and joyful experience for them and the grandchildren.  Our family no longer has some of the intense expectation our parents generated in us and our children. The holidays may still be a bright occasion, but tinted at times with the dull hues of loss.

The wonderful fact is the holidays provide a powerful way to move forward in our grief journey. It’s all in the way we “embrace it, balance it, carry it.” Here are some suggestions for using your holiday memories to heal and rediscover the joy.

Embrace the memories as they come. Trying to push them aside seldom, if ever, works. When we do they often actually become more intense. Share your memories with others and listen to those of others. You may find that in the sharing the person or persons you lost actually seem closer and more a part of the present. In our family we have sweet and tender memories of friends, a childless couple, who visited our child-intensive Christmas morning to share in the chaos and joy of opening presents. We think of Sally, who died of cancer twenty years ago, every Christmas morning and it’s a warm experience. Remember the funny stories too. There are plenty of laughs, like my father-in-law who gave each of his four daughters a toy truck and lacy nightgowns as a hint that there were no grand children yet. We still smile at that one as we watch the grandchildren celebrate the holidays.

Whether with family or friends story telling is contagious and memories come alive and bring those we’ve lost closer in spirit. We honor them by sharing and they become present in a new way. Remembrance is in itself, though sometimes painful, healing.

Take advantage of opportunities offered during the holidays. Energy and joy can be found in making the season better for those in need. Get in the spirit by wrapping presents for children of parents who are incarcerated, visiting those in nursing homes who may not have family close by, attending church or synagogue services –even if you haven’t been there in awhile. Some have special services of healing and remembrance.

Find new ways of celebrating the holidays. Don’t neglect tradition, but shaping a healthy future sometimes requires breaking some traditions. Perhaps staying at home or attempting to recreate the past just doesn’t work for you. I have friends who gather the extended family at the beach where they just spend time “catching up” and “enjoying each other”. ”We’re making new memories,” they say.  This year our family will be doing things differently. Newly married couples are merging and changing how the holiday is celebrated and now there is the addition of grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Life moves forward. The past with its memories is not forgotten. We look at it as celebrating the lives of those who are no longer with us and celebrating new life and the creation of new memories.

Find peace and wisdom in the season’s spiritual messages. You don’t even have to be “religious” for this to be helpful.  There are powerful symbols for us in our grieving and mourning. For me, one of the most powerful is the coming of “light into darkness”. In our northern hemisphere the daylight hours are shorter and there is the winter solstice which is the shortest day of daylight. I like the symbol of the star shining light and menorah candles shining light. Hope is the message of both traditions. There is the power of light this time of year that can shine into the darkness of grief and bring hope when we give it permission to enter.

Let the light of the season be a gift for your grief. As my yoga teacher says at the close of each session, “May the light of peace overcome all darkness. Victory to the light!”

Since you have entered this website we invite you to share here how you remember and celebrate the holiday season in ways that bring you healing. It’s an opportunity to help us all grow through sharing stories, memories and new ways to move on the journey.

Photo credit.

One Comment:

  1. Vicki Flynn said on November 18, 2012 at 3:37 am ... #

    Within the last 2 years I’ve lost my precious 26 yr old daughter and my mom just last December. I’ve chosen to create a photo show with one of those plug in picture frames that holds many pictures and rotates them. I will put previous Thanksgiving pictures in it and have a candle going right next to it so that they will be able to see them. I have invited the whole family here for dinner and will prepare some of our loved ones favortie things as well. It will be hard but they have both left us rich traditions and tons of wonderful memories. We will cry and laugh I’m sure.

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