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.

Misconceptions About Grief

I attended the grief support group today, my sixth time for that particular group, but I’ll need to find another group when I get relocated. It’s good to be able to talk about my grief and my lost mate without fear of boring people. And I am beginning to fear that very thing. It seems as if I’m standing in place while the rest of the world moves on, which adds to my feeling of isolation. I had no problem talking or blogging about my grief at the beginning — it was new to me and to those I encountered. But now that I know I could still be dealing with these same feelings long after everyone else has forgotten — it could be a year, perhaps even two (and sometimes, or so I’ve heard, the second year is worse than the first as the reality settles into one’s soul) — I’ve been hesitant to mention my bereftness lest I incur impatience in others. Or even worse, lest I seem as if I’m milking my personal tragedy for attention.

I asked the group today how they handled the situation (the others were almost two years into their bereavement), and they said they stopped talking about their loss except to the group. To everyone else they’d use phrases such as “I’m coping,” or “I’m doing okay all things considered.” When I asked if I should hide my grief, the counselor said no — too many people hide their grief, and it’s important to let others know what grief is, how it affects a person and her life.

So here, on my blog, I’m going to continue talking about the experience, continue to share what I learn. Grief is so not what I thought it was. I assumed from what I’d read and seen that the bereft felt sad and lonely, perhaps empty and lost. It is that and so much more. It affects us physically, spiritually, mentally. It creates a void in the body that disease, accidents, and violence hasten to fill. (The death rate for a person grieving her mate increases by 27%.) It affects our self esteem and our sense of place in the universe. It makes us question our values and the meaning of our lives. It changes us forever, and we need a long time to intergrate the loss and pain into our personal identity.

There are many misconceptions about grief such as:

  • All losses are the same
  • All bereaved people grieve in the same way
  • It takes two weeks to three months to get over your grief
  • When grief is resolved, it never comes up again
  • It is better to put painful thoughts out of your mind
  • Anger should not be part of your grief
  • You will have no relationship with your loved one after death
  • It is best to put the memories of your loved one in the past and go one with your life
  • It is best to get involved and stay busy so there is no space to feel pain
  • Crying doesn’t solve anything

I’m not sure about the last miconception. Crying doesn’t seem to solve anything, but it does have a place. Without tears and yes, I admit it, screams, the pain has no place to go but deeper inside. I’m also not sure about having a relationship with my loved one after his death, but I like the idea. I just don’t know how to do it. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. Or you can let me know. I need all the help I can get.