I was recently invited to speak at a Death Cafe in Kingston, N.Y., about grief and the holidays. The Death Cafe is a movement throughout the country where people come together of their own free will to talk about death, loss, end-of-life care, etc. These are not macabre gatherings and usually a lot of laughing goes on. (For more information, visit deathcafe.com.)
While the holidays are a time of celebration with family and friends, it is also a time when the grief associated with the loss of a loved one rears its head. It is a time when who is not sitting at the banquet table is as felt as who is. And, as we age and more of our loved ones and friends die, the emptier the holiday experience can feel.
Grief is experienced as sadness, abandonment, loneliness, withdrawal, despair, and depression. Grief zaps us of our energy and makes us more vulnerable to others and to the state of the world. Grief can take our appetite away. Consequently, we can experience confusion when what we expect to feel during the holidays, upbeat and happy, is undermined by grief. Both, however, are real responses to what the holidays and gatherings with others ask of us. It doesn't help to downplay the sadness or numb ourselves with alcohol. What is best is to acknowledge our grief and understand it as an expression of our love for those who have died.
The holidays are often peak experiences in our lives with annual rituals and deep-seated memories of years past. We don't necessarily remember some random day in the year but we do remember the holidays. The presence of absence of a loved one is more acute because we recall many details of how we celebrated. We have photos and videos of a joyous time when we were all together. Now that we are not all together, is in contrast to happier days.
My husband's last Christmas, a holiday that he loved and I grew to love because of him, was spent on our living-room couch directing a few of us in the dressing of the tree. He was a chorale director with a keen aesthetic sense and got the gestalt of what a properly decorated tree needed. He was in his dying time then and come hell or high water, Christmas would be celebrated. This is the holiday memory that I hold - my husband in his pajamas and grey, white and black robe pointing to spots on the tree that desperately called for an ornament. I also was in a quandary that year as to what present to buy a dying man. It all seemed ludicrous but I did come up with a kaleidoscope so that his visual world could shift with beauty.
For many years now, I seek the outdoors for solace when the holidays arrive. Christmas was my husband's holiday, not mine, given my upbringing. My family is small and I've lost my enthusiasm for mustering joy when in fact I feel sorrow. I think that each of us needs to give ourselves permission to be true to ourselves during the holidays. To be gentle with ourselves.
This might be the year to forgo the whole production. Or, it may not. In defiance we may rise to the occasion and celebrate with a new fervor.
But don't be surprised, those of us whose loved ones are not with us, if sadness and grief creeps into holiday shopping, food preparations, and toasting to the New Year. This is normal. And, not only will we miss the ones we love, we may also be reminded that the day will come when Christmas is celebrated without us at the table.
Deborah Golden Alecson is a death, dying and bereavement educator and speaker who resides in Lenox, Mass. She is the author of three books that deal with her personal loss. Learn more at www.deborahgoldenalecson.com.