Saturday, December 17, 2011

Not-So-Happy Holidays

There are plenty of reasons to dread the Holidays: family conflict, loneliness, and perhaps most of all, loss. Indeed, while the first holidays following a loss may be the hardest, each holiday season brings the sense of loss back, with old traditions and rituals serving to highlight the absence of those who have passed away.

Sometimes people try to lessen their grief by avoiding or changing their traditions. For example, my family has always taken a big group picture on Christmas, the one day each year when we're all together. The first Christmas after my grandmother died,  my aunt decided that gathering for a picture without Grandma at the center would be too sad, and so we didn't take a picture. The following year, we intended to take a picture, but everyone "forgot" until some of the group had already left. Will we take a picture this year? I hope so, but I don't know - it may be that the tradition has died, too.

Since we know that avoidance tends to increase rather than decrease distress, the logical assumption is that avoiding the traditions and rituals associated with the loved one whom we've lost will not prevent, and may ultimately compound, grief. The most likely result, in fact, is that we will also lose the traditions and rituals that have defined us as a family or group.

It may be wiser, and more satisfying in the long-run, to instead give up the notion that holidays have to be "happy." Actually, the word "holiday" implies nothing of the sort - the word references "holy" days, days that have been set apart from ordinary days, and can run the full spectrum from celebrations, to solemn observances, to days of mourning. We can observe our familiar traditions and rituals of holidays with joy, or with sadness, and have them be no less valid and meaningful. The meaning may shift in the absence of loved ones lost, but some meaning, value, and our link to the past will be preserved.

I invite those who are facing a holiday season with grief following loss to observe the holidays without avoidance, to allow yourselves to mingle joy and grief, tears and laughter, but not to relinquish the traditions that make up your connection to each other, to the past, and to the future.

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