When I am asked how the grief caused by losing someone you love changes over time, I suggest that unfortunately the grief journey is not linear and there are no reliable mileposts to help guide you along the way. Grief is not something you get over or even through, as I’ve heard people say. In my experience, grief is something you learn to carry. It will always be with you in some form, and you will never be the same as you were before. However, there are times when grief may be a little softer than other times and, at some point, you are likely to experience joy again, though you might not recognize it at first.
The holidays can be the worst times. That pretty much goes without saying but, importantly, they are also the times when happiness may be lurking just around the corner. Any happiness will most likely be fleeting and less all-encompassing than it used to be, but I do believe that it’s there and that opportunities to let in the warmth of the holiday spirit will increase over time.
One indication of how grief has changed for me comes from reflecting on where I was a year ago, compared to now. Last year, it was the fourth Christmas without my youngest child, Emma. We had just gotten through the fourth Thanksgiving and what would have been Emma’s 23rd birthday. That’s when I wrote 6 Steps to Survive the Holiday Season after Loss that appeared in the Huffington Post.
As I’ve been asked by numerous people if they could reprint the article (and I say, Of course!), I decided to re-read it to see if I now think differently based on the “wisdom” and experience of another year. Here’s a review of the “6 steps” that I recommended:
- Don’t ask too much of yourself.
- Reshape traditions.
- Find ways to include the ones you have lost.
- Say her name. Tell stories about him.
- Take time for you.
- Allow yourself to be sad but also to experience joy.
In general – as we now work our way through the fifth holiday season without Emma – I find that the “6 steps” are still good reminders for me (and I hope others), and I wouldn’t feel compelled to modify much of anything. Even so, I do sense that I have changed. For example, I am longer tempted to ask too much of myself – I’ve learned that my steady state is slower now, and that’s okay.
Significance of Eating at the Dining Room Table
Probably the biggest change – at least symbolically – has to do with holiday traditions. Like many grieving families, we have been busy reshaping and reinventing traditions since Emma died, but this year we brought back a tradition that we had put on hold – we ate Thanksgiving dinner in the dining room. It may seem really simple and “no big deal,” but people who have experienced profound loss understand the situation. I honestly didn’t think we would ever have a family meal in the dining room again. I didn’t think we could bear the empty chair. But this year, as it turns out, there would two empty chairs: one for Emma and one for her sister, Sarah, who is off with a boyfriend having the adventure of a lifetime in Japan. So, I set both empty places at the Thanksgiving table and tried to pretend that both of my girls were off doing something wonderful, just out of my reach and my view.
For us it was the right time, and I’m glad we went back. But I was ready. You may not be. You’ll know when you are. Take baby steps when you can. Try not to stand still for too long. And, hopefully, you can open your heart enough to begin to rediscover pieces of joy this holiday season.