Honoring All Grief and Loss During the Holidays

 Taking time in nature helps me when I am grieving. Elk Rock Garden, Portland Oregon 11/23/17.

Taking time in nature helps me when I am grieving. Elk Rock Garden, Portland Oregon 11/23/17.

I’ll be honest, Thanksgiving was not easy this year. Oh, it ended on an upbeat note as I enjoyed dinner with my daughter and her boyfriend at his extended family’s home, but it began with the ever present reminder that my ninety-year old mother is declining and any expectations need to be set aside in order to meet her where she is in any given moment. I am on my own grief journey with her through Alzheimer’s and what a holiday looked like last year, or the year before, or a decade ago, can not be reproduced in 2017 like a Facebook memory.

As someone who offers workshops and education on grief and loss, I read an abundance of books and articles, follow websites, attend workshops, and listen to other grief healers that offer insight and wisdom on the topic. I draw on these resources, sitting in quiet, and incorporate them with my own experiences so when someone attends what I offer or reads what I write, I hope they have an authentic experience of a greater wisdom grounded in my awareness. This “being authentic” lines up with my inner integrity, but is also frightening and vulnerable. I draw part of my courage from Kate Carroll de Grutes book, The Authenticity Experiment, Lessons From the Best & Worst Year Of My Life http://twosylviaspress.com/the-authenticity-experiment.html, and understanding that being authentic doesn’t mean I have to share all the dregs of my inner or outer life (some things are meant to remain personal.) Just be honest in what I offer. No sugarcoating. So here is today's post.

What I have found less available (and by no means I have read everything out there) is related to the “non-death” sense of grief and loss as the holidays arrive, such as what I am experiencing. Maybe it is more nebulous. This year I was planning to have dinner at my mother’s assisted living. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Our conversations are circular like a tiny Slinky™ and staying present to them is like the end of that third Lord of the Rings movie when I just wished Frodo had died and I didn’t have to endure the last chapter. But I am the quintessential “good daughter” and I do love my mother. So I plan on arriving half-an-hour early, autumn-themed bouquet in hand, to make sure she is dressed and ready for our noon meal, only to find her having a “bad day” and not wanting to get out of bed. Cozy as a caterpillar in her cocoon, she was content to sleep even when offered a cup of tea. So I waited. Read the paper. Arranged the flowers. Went through several days of mail. Let the staff know we would eat in her room. Two hours later she was ready to get up. Two hours later I ate a cold array of traditional food hidden under the heavy, plastic cover, wet with steam. She picked at a few bites of turkey, wearing her robe, dozing from time to time in her recliner, wondering why I hadn’t gone downstairs to “join the rest of the family.” When we called my brother in Alabama to wish him well, she said she “was doing great and had a wonderful dinner yesterday,” already forgetting what the occasion was all about. The staff, like always, checked on her frequently. (They are one of my gratitudes.) But three hours after arriving, as I carried her laundry basket and mail out to my car, I stowed the smile I wore for the occasion and tears floated to the surface. The slow grief I feel at losing my beloved mother through a series of medical events and dementia often sits like a half digested meal in my stomach. Not nourishing me. Not sating me. Uncomfortable.

I don’t define your loss, you do.
— anne richardson
 Empty playgrounds can stir reminders of loss.

Empty playgrounds can stir reminders of loss.

 
...The nostalgic memories. The Norman Rockwell holiday memories we’re “supposed” to have. The darker memories exist, as well...Because let’s not lie, these dinners were equal parts big laughter and big tension. —The Authenticity Experiment, pg 40
— Kate Caroll de Gutes
 
 Mom and me, 12/31/16, entering into a new year.

Mom and me, 12/31/16, entering into a new year.

I work a part time job at a grocery store as a cashier and the day before Thanksgiving the same smile I wore to my mother’s, I practiced on customers. A frequently asked question was “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” after I’ve asked the same. “Oh, having dinner with my mother at her assisted living,” pushing down my inner desire to say more, to weep, to run away. This is not the time to outwardly grieve. And I also wonder, as people make their brief appearance on my stage, how many of them are experiencing loss too? How many of them will put on a show for family and friends unsure or afraid to express their grief?

The losses others experience this time of year, besides coping with a long term, chronic disease or health decline, that I find are less frequently addressed can include:

  • broken relationships due to divorce or other breakups
  • not talking about family secrets and pretending everything is “okay” when the family is together
  • having a family member who has mental health issues and having that person absent from a gathering or fear of having the person show up and “upset” the gathering
  • any addiction issues
  • childhood issues of abuse that resurface when families gather and the abuser is present or talk of the abuser comes up
  • separation due to religious, theological, political, cultural or philosophical differences
  • a loved one who is trans or has “come out” and some family members not at a point of acceptance, so they are shunned from gatherings or not accepted for who they are

And this is just a partial list. As I frequently say, "I don’t define your loss, you do." If you are experiencing a loss that is not related to a death or something on this list that doesn’t mean it isn’t legitimate! It is yours and it is real.

These all come with a need to grieve. Perhaps you grew up with a set of traditions and rituals that were strictly adhered to and then one person no longer feels comfortable following those traditions. You may feel a sense of longing for a “return to the old ways” that offered a sense of stability. Or there is the proverbial elephant in the room that no one talks about and when one person finally gives it voice, it may feel like someone sang the high-pitch C and shattered the glass of complicity.

What do you do when you finally realize that “off” feeling you have as the holiday season rolls around may have to do with an unrecognized or unacknowledged loss?

  • First acknowledging any loss you are feeling deserves a “bravo.”  Just naming your grief is important.
  • Don’t let others minimize your feelings. For example: If you say “I feel sad this time of year because my cousin comes to the holiday parties and is always drunk. I remember when we were close. I really miss her.” Another family member tries to say, “You were never that close. I don’t know what you are talking about.” It is okay to step away from that person and realize they may have a different reality or may not have come to an awareness of their own grief about that person’s drinking.
  • Take time to list what you remember about traditions that are important to you. Tune into your five senses. Tune into your body. What part of the list brings a sense of warmth and a smile? What leaves you feeling uneasy or sad? Can you form a renewed or adapted ritual around the warmth and discard what leaves you uneasy? What would that look like? Who would you like to join you?
  • Practice an abundance of self care, gentleness and grace. The world will likely be full of triggering smells, sights, sounds, tastes and events. Try to build in quiet moments for yourself to step away from the clutter of our society's commercialized season and the perception that it has to “look” a certain way.
  • Allow people in your life who are safe and will listen and not tell you “how to be” but will just let you be.
  • No “shoulding” on yourself. There is no right or wrong way to grieve or experience loss. And there is no timeline.
  • Practice gratitude alongside feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, etc. This comes from wise sages and there really is one small thing to be grateful for each day. At least that is my experience.

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Let me share what I am offering myself during this season while I grieve my mother’s decline (among others losses not mentioned here.)

  • Gentleness: I have a “to do” list I am allowing to sit semi-dormant and not “shoulding” on myself for the incomplete items.
  • Tears: They erupt at the most inconvenient times. So be it. 
  • Honesty: With most people I will say that life is not easy right now. Level of detail depends on the relationship. 
  • Seeking support: I am making room for others to care for me instead of always being the caretaker (see honesty.) 
  • Authentic gratitude: Every morning and evening I have a gratitude practice, for I really am grateful for the abundance in my life, including the lessons grief offers me.
  • Radical compassion for myself and others: Okay, this is a work in process for myself in particular—see gentleness
  • Connecting with nature and quiet (where I feel most deeply connected to the Holy in my life.) Essential for my spiritual well-being.
  • And finally, but the last one listed here: offering a workshop on Honoring Grief During the Holidays (http://nurtureyourjourney.net/workshop-schedule/2017/12/9/honoring-grief-during-the-holidays.) Though when the idea came to me in the summer, I don’t think I realized how much I needed the offering as much as it needed offering. Designing it is a process of trust and letting go of my usual way of putting together a workshop.  I’m excited by what is unfolding.

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As your holiday season unfolds, do you have losses that need to be given voice? What does that look like for you? What does gratitude look like in the midst of grief? If you are feeling upbeat and entering into this season with joy cascading over you, how might you hold space for someone in your life who is experiencing loss that needs to be listened to?

I don't want to minimize at the grief we experience for those we hold dear due to death, which is also part of my journey. That simply was not the focus of this post.

I am grateful for my family, friends, and followers. May you be gentle with yourselves and each other as this year edges to a close.