Most of us who grieve experience the first holiday season without our loved one as a time of great emotional vulnerability. We’re susceptible to every reminder of the one we hold dear, we’re surprised by every ambush of the heart. Our spirit is especially attuned to our inmost sadness. We’ve lost the one we love. We’re in pain, it hurts. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, “The presence of that absence is everywhere.” That about sums it up, doesn’t it?
When we grieve at the holidays many of us find we’re especially tearful, maybe even a little depressed. Though we might think the worst of our spontaneous tears are behind us – outbursts still happen from time to time but now they’re at least a little more contained – the holidays sometimes make us feel like we’re back at an old familiar place where grief is the sum and substance of our everyday life. It’s not really a stretch to understand why – this time of year is focused on love and family and togetherness, and there’s a large, empty space in our heart that can’t be filled by the superficial gaiety of the season. There are days when I miss my husband so much I can hardly breathe…
Let’s talk a little more about our tears. It’s no mystery that when a tidal wave of emotion engulfs us, our most natural response is to cry. The good news is that our heartfelt tears may cue family members to express their emotions at the holidays as well. They may be reading us for permission to share their grief and cry alongside us. Sometime we worry about crying - What will others think? Will I spoil their holiday if I cry? Will they be embarrassed or uncomfortable with my tears? When we release our tears, we experience both physical and emotional relief – we feel better. Tears can be a cathartic expression of grief at the holidays, especially when there are no words to express the depth of our love and loss.
So, let’s get practical. If you think about it, before the death of the one we now grieve, there was probably always a plan – even an un-plan was a plan because intentionally you were either together or apart. If this is the first holiday without your loved one, it’s important to make a plan and structure the season accordingly.
Recently I laughed with a friend about the Thanksgiving Day a year after my husband died when we decided to take a picnic to a nearby lake and sit beside the water to share a humble turkey sandwich. I was alone that year and she needed to say “no” to her family for the first time, so we struck out and had what was a lamentable little time of holiday nothingness. We had a plan, it just wasn't a very enjoyable or satisfying one.
At the time it wasn’t at all funny to me. I felt frustrated and, in truth, a little angry that my husband wasn’t there to make it all right. I added the experience to a growing list of sad flops and failures that, for a time, best described my grief. And so from the personal experience of several less than ideal holidays, I highly recommend having a plan for each occasion of the season.
Specifically, be timely in making reservations - let your family know what you’re planning and where you’ll be. Whether your plan succeeds brilliantly or turns out to be not quite what you expected, at least you’ll have tried. Our loved one would want us to try to be part of something larger than ourselves, whether we gather with family and friends, volunteer for the day, or choose to be someplace removed from the place of our most immediate pain.
The upside is this: if you make a plan for the holidays likely you won’t experience the emotional hangover of discouragement and frustration that easily lingers when we fail to plan. These feelings can stay with us long after the decorations are stored away for another year. When we grieve it’s a gift to others and to ourselves to have a plan. The bonus is that when we make a plan, sometimes we’re able to avoid situations, circumstances, and (dare I say) people we’d rather not encounter in the name of celebration.
God has the ultimate plan, the best plan, the final plan for our lives. God knows the woundedness of our heart as we grieve at the holidays. God cares for our grief, God comforts us at this season of life and love.
May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.
Psalm 20:4 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the plan of your will. Amen.
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