Grieving at Christmas

The misconceptions people have about grief are appalling. Someone asked me today what grievers hope to accomplish by being depressed at Christmas (and not doing anything about it) when the grievers know being depressed won’t bring back their loved one.

As if we a choice about grieving. As if we want to be sad. As if drugging oneself into happiness is a viable choice.

Depression and grief are not choices. They happen whether we want them to or not.

Besides, grief over the loss of a loved one, at Christmas or the rest of the year, is not depression. Clinical depression is being sad for no reason. Grief is its own reason.

Holidays are painful. The first wedding anniversary, the first birthdays, the first major holidays. Each of these days brings a greater sense of grief because we are intensely aware that our life mate is not here to experience these once-happy holidays with us. Whatever traditions we developed together become obsolete when only one of us remains to carry on. The pain and the yearning to be together once more during these times can be devastating.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years are the big holidays with the biggest challenges. These special days are family celebrations, and often we are left alone with our memories and our feelings, even if we are surrounded by family.

The holidays during the second and third and fourth and even beyond can be just as difficult. Not only are our traditions gone along with our loved one, every commercial, every song, almost every movie tells us we should be happy, but all we know is that the person we most want to be with, the person who helped bring us happiness or helped magnify our happiness is gone. Even worse, we often need to pretend to be happy about our situation to keep from ruining the festivities of others.

The grief we feel at this time of year is not a conscious choice and comes even if we aren’t reminded of the holidays.

Our bodies remember the special occasions. Our bodies as well as our minds and spirits grieve, so even if we are able to put our deceased loved ones out of our minds, our bodies grieve for us with an upsurge of adrenaline and a change in brain chemistry.

It takes a lot of energy to try not to remember, not to grieve, which overwhelms the brain and exacerbates the very stresses we are attempting to overcome.

This is all in addition to normal seasonal effects, such as depression from the shorter days and longer nights. It’s also in addition to the normal stresses of the holidays.

No one wants any of this. No one ever thinks grief will bring the loved one back. We wish . . . oh, how we wish for one more smile or one more word, but it’s not going to happen, and we know that. But still, watching others have what we don’t is very painful, even if we are happy for them and their love.

Supposing we could do something about our sadness at Christmas, what do you expect us to do? Drug ourselves into oblivion? That’s a heck of a lot worse than feeling sad. Grief connects us in a tenuous way to our lost love; it’s a way of honoring them, and feeling the pain is the best way to learn to live without our love.

Jeff has been gone long enough that I no longer feel much of an upsurge in grief at this time of year, but I am very aware of what it used to be like for me and what it remains like for many grievers.

So, if you, too, have archaic ideas about grief, like the person who asked the question, please try not to foist your ideas on grievers. After all, one day you might be grieving at Christmas, too.

See also: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? and Dealing With Grief During the Holidays.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Resuming My Lonely March Into the Future

Sometimes the hardest thing we have to do is keep marching into the future, especially when the person who connected us to the world lives in our past.

My life mate/soul mate meant more to me than anything or anyone else for almost thirty-four years. His death forty-five months ago brought me more pain than I could ever have imagined, and it still brings me pain, particularly when
I remember the reason he’s out of my life — that he’s dead. Death is incomprehensible to me, and maybe always will be. Even more incomprehensibly, he died relatively young. 63. That’s hardly any age at all in a time when so many live into their nineties.

I do well most of the time. I know I can’t live in the past, especially not the past where we were happy. (A lot of the time during the last decade or so as his health declined, we weren’t happy, but it didn’t matter as long as we were together.) I try to concentrate on today, make what plans I can for the future, add new people to my life in an attempt to combat my loneliness. Mostly, I try to become a person who can survive such a tragic loss, maybe even one who can thrive.

And yet, on Christmas afternoon, I couldn’t stop crying.

It’s odd — Christmas didn’t mean much to us. We weren’t big on celebrations or traditions, but by default, we created our own traditions. Since we couldn’t work or run errands or do any of our other usual tasks when the world was shut down, we spent the day watching movies and nibbling on finger foods — cheese, meats, crackers, fruit, vegetables.

I spent a quiet day this Christmas. I fixed a festive meal for my father, went for a walk, then watched a movie with a plate of food in my lap. And that’s when my forward thinking collapsed, and all I could think of was the past.

I’ve signed up for an online dating service, and even have been trying to connect with people, but today I remembered why I’m trying to move on with my life, and something inside of me rebelled. I don’t want to move on. I want what I had. I want to go home to him, ask his forgiveness for whatever I did that made him leave me, see if we can reconnect. But he didn’t leave me, at least not voluntarily. He died.

I’m tired. I’m tired of his being dead. I’m tired of trying to move forward alone. Tired of trying to fill a void that seems endlessly deep.

But what other choice do I have? I allowed myself that time of sadness on Christmas, but now that it has run its course, I’ll steadfastly resume my lonely march into the future.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Christmas Traditions by Default

????????????????????For people in my “grief age,” those who are coming up on the third anniversary of grief, this Christmas wasn’t as hard as the previous two. All firsts are hard but that first Christmas was doubly painful because we were still steeped in new grief. The second Christmas was hard because we were reminded once again that we are without the one person who connected us to the world and to our traditions, and it set off an upsurge of grief. This year was difficult in yet another way — not as sad as the first two, perhaps, but more bewildering. Our loved ones have been gone a long time, and life is starting to close the gap where they were ripped from our lives.

It doesn’t seem possible that life can go on without them. It doesn’t seem possible that we can go on without them. And yet, here we are. Another Christmas without.

My upsurges of grief the first two years took me by surprise. We didn’t celebrate Christmas, so there didn’t seem to be any reason for the holiday to affect me, and yet the day itself creates traditions even in those who don’t celebrate it. We couldn’t treat it like any other day because it’s a day out of the normal routine for most people in this country —- no mail deliveries, no businesses operating, few stores open. We usually spent the day just lounging around, watching our favorite movies, and eating finger foods (meat, cheese, fruit slices) — creating a tradition by default.

Yesterday, my grief was momentary and had nothing to do with Christmas, just one of those normal touches of sadness that I have come to accept as homage to him and our life together. I no longer feed my grief by holding tightly to thoughts of him. Such reminiscences don’t make me feel connected to him, don’t make me feel better about his being gone, so when the inevitable thoughts flow through my mind, creating sadness and bringing on tears, I let them pass. I used to worry that if I didn’t hold on to those thoughts that I was somehow negating him. If he only exists in memory, and I don’t remember him, then he is truly gone.

But he is gone from this earth whether I remember him or not. He is gone from my life whether I remember him or not. Nothing I do or think can ever change that. I still miss him. Always will. But as with yesterday, my missing him probably won’t have anything to do with Christmas memories or traditions, not even the tradition we created by default.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Christmas and Grief: Creating New Traditions

This will be my second Christmas without my life mate/soul mate. I didn’t expect it to be a problem since we never celebrated Christmas as such. But, since it was a day with no mail, no open stores, no reason to do any of our daily activites, we’d fix plates of finger foods — meat, cheese, crackers, apples, carrots — and watch movies all day. It wasn’t until after he died that I realized our non-celebration had become a traditon.

I don’t like watching movies by myself. Without his enjoyment sparking mine, the movies seem flat and uninspired. Apparently whatever energy we generated between us brightened the story and made it personal, as if we were part of it or it was part of us. Now he is gone. That extra energy is gone. The tradition is gone. And I am all that’s left of our shared Christmases.

I never understood the point of traditions. Traditions seemed to be customs people blindly followed long after they’d forgotten the reason for the rituals and, since I have a very hard time dealing with pointlessness, I seldom followed traditions. (Hence my surprise at discovering that we had created a Christmas tradition after all.) Now, however, I do see the point. The point is continuity, connection, comfort. Life can be cold and cruel and desperately lonely. We need something to hold on to, and tradition gives us something to grasp when everything we hold dear has disappeared. Somehow, I will need to create new traditions, if only for myself.

My life mate/soul mate always loved Christmas lights, so last Christmas Eve, I took him for a walk. (He still lives in my heart, and that is the “him” I took walking.) I walked around the neighborhood viewing the lights, not just taking a cursory look as is my wont, but appreciating every scene, every effort the neighbors had put into their vignettes as he would have done. (He was an appreciator. I’d never known anyone who could appreciate every nuance the way he used to.) And tonight — Christmas Eve — I did it again. Walked around the neighborhood. Appreciated the artificial lights and the natural lights above. (Lots of stars tonight!) From such simple beginnings, new traditions are created.

Merry Christmas, compadre, wherever you are.

What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas?

Christmas is a hard time of year for those who are grieving. Not only does the festivity of the season remind the bereft of all they have lost, but it’s a time for getting together with loved ones, and the goneness of that one special person seems even more unfathomable when you are alone or alone in a crowd.

Grief makes everyone uneasy. It’s a reminder how vulnerable we really are. How, despite our beliefs, we know so very little of life and death. Even well-meaning people stumble around the bereft, suddenly clumsy in the face of grief, and this unnatural behavior makes the griever feel even more alone. Some people give looks of speculation, as if you are diseased and they’re wondering if they should step away so they don’t catch your illness. Or else they give you wrinkled-forehead looks of sympathy that make you feel even worse.

Shortly after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I noticed how uncomfortable people were around me, and how they wanted to say the right thing but didn’t know what the right thing was, so I offered suggestions in What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving. I can see there might be a special concern about saying the right thing at Christmas, but the truth is, there is no right thing. Nothing you can ever say will bring the bereft what they most need: life to make sense once more. (That might not be what we most want, but it is what we most need.)

If you know the person huggingly well, the best thing is a hug. If you knew the deceased, share a story. “I remember how Bob loved (or hated) Christmas.” Don’t assume that by ignoring the dead you are making things easier for the bereft. We remember, and it’s nice to know that others remember, too. One thing to never say is, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. You can’t. Even if you had a similar loss, everyone’s grief is different, every person is different, and by telling them you know how they feel, you are diminishing the truth of their grief. Also, don’t pressure them to tell you how they feel. Grief encompasses so many different emotions, it’s almost impossible to know how one feels. All you know is that you are in pain.

It seems such an emotional minefield, doesn’t it? But, whether you are family, good friends, or casual aquaintances, there is something you can say, something that is so common and almost rote that no one stops to analyze the words. And still these words manage to convey exactly what you want to say. (In fact, leaving off these words may make the person even worse since they will know how uncomfortable you are with their grief.)

So, what do you say to someone who is grieving at Christmas?

You say, “Merry Christmas.”


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

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