Holiday Grief: It Will Look Different from Home to Home, Heart to Heart
“Oh, the holidays will be so tough for you!” For weeks, I’ve been hearing this hard-and-fast prediction from friends and strangers alike. While I’m new to this journey, my sense is that few things about grief are as tidy and pre-ordained as our neatly wrapped packages.
Even though it’s only been about five months since I lost my husband, Jim, there’s only one thing I can predict: My sorrow appears when it appears. Eases when it eases. And it seems to hit hardest when the most ordinary moments on an average day turn into an unexpected shard of pain.
On this frosty morning, I was standing at the window in my red flannel pajamas, watching a bright blue jay feasting at our bird feeder. Huge, fluffy flakes floated down, the Rocky Mountains a blur in the distance. We hiked in those mountains for decades.
For 42 years, Jim and I huddled together at many windows, watching rain showers, sleet, and snow storms. Not minding many days that the skies were turning dark or the days growing colder because we could hunker down in our cozy sanctuary. Turn on the fire. Get out a board game or a good read.
Now, a cancer storm has darkened everything. Our sanctuary and all our best efforts could not prevent Jim’s death to aggressive multiple myeloma cancer. And that my dear best friend’s not next to me soaking up this new snowy wonderland outside, the steaming tea kettle on the stove behind us? Some days, it's still inconceivable. It cuts deeply.
I should now turn and see him at the stove, making us spiced tea. A Jim thing to do. He should be laughing at how I lived in pajamas long before the pandemic. Dry humor, another Jim thing.
But nothing is as it “should be” or once was. And none of us needs to burden the bereaved with our own expectations of how their holiday grief should or should not look. Cultural stereotypes be gone. On some days, those carrying loss may be eager to join large, merry gatherings and find any joy they can--loss can be lonely and isolating. Others may not be able to go out the door. Some--me, I suspect--will oscillate between those states.
Let’s give people the latitude they need to process loss in their own unique way. This season, grief will look different from home to home, heart to heart. And if someone’s sad, let them feel sad. No fixes. No fizzy denial. No forced merriment. If someone is happy and excited to celebrate over the holidays, let them grab the joy. Zero shame. Zero judgment.
Grief is messy, unpredictable, and confusing. Five days after Jim passed away this summer, still raw and numb, I went to the grocery store for some comfort foods. But I was immediately gutted when I spied a table of Jim’s favorite comfort food—bananas. During his 18-month cancer journey, I’d made regular banana pilgrimages to that same table. Week after week after week, the buying of the bananas. Bananas were one of his few favorite foods. And Jim still craved them as crushing back pain drained his strength and weekly chemotherapy sapped his appetite.
As his cancer numbers rose and his prognosis got scarier, I could make sure we had bananas in the house. That was one small, but significant thing I could still control. Bright yellow hope on some grey days.
Well, there you are again, bananas. And the reality hit me: I would never, ever have to buy another one. Bananas were always Jim’s jam. Never mine. Too sweet. Too soft. So, being able to forever ignore the bananas now? That meant it was irrefutably true. Jim was gone. It had happened. He had died. I went to my car in the parking lot and sobbed.
Such everyday experiences lead me to conclude that my grief isn’t waiting in the wings for a grand holiday debut. No, it’s been totally seizing center stage in mundane, ordinary moments—for months. As painful as that is. As embarrassing or awkward as it can be when tears flow in the middle of a Trader Joe’s aisle. Thank God for kind people there. Grocery store workers and hair stylists will tell you they console a lot of grieving people.
In September, a long-planned trip to London turned into yet another Big Unplanned Grief Lesson. Oh, bloody hell, no offense to the royals. After so much loss, I had planned to fill up with theater, museums, many plates of fish and chips, great bookstores, and British kindness. Ease and lightness. Instead, I landed in what felt like the global epicenter of grief immediately following Queen Elizabeth’s death.
Well, bugger, seriously? More mourning? More leaky eyes? I surrendered to the historic and heavier-than-expected moment. It turned out to be cathartic. Like when I spied a child’s simple hand drawn card on my second day. The card had been placed under one of the massive leafy trees in Green Park next to Buckingham Palace. I lost it when I leaned closer and saw a sweet, crayoned corgi with the words, “We miss you already, Ma’am.”
How often I’d thought that over the months as Jim declined and faced his death— “I miss you already.” Seeing him fall asleep many days in a patch of sunshine, struggling to stay awake to read a favorite book. “I miss you already.” When I saw the card in London, I gave up any attempt at even trying to maintain the British stiff upper lip. Shared grief is comforting. It normalizes loss And I consoled myself with great fish and chips and a pint raised to Jim.
Loss is tough enough. No need to burden anyone with expectations on how they should carry their holiday grief. Let’s just give all of us room to feel however we feel. On any day. And honor that. Hold it dear.
Wouldn’t it be freeing if we could do that for one another? Because truth be told, I think we’re all grieving the loss of something these days. Young people grieve all the things they lost in the pandemic. Elderly mourn their loss of vitality and vital connections to friends no longer here. Parents are stressed and sad they can’t often afford even the most basic things for their families. Many mourn being too busy—or fearful--to make real connections with others.
Perhaps if we stop forcing holiday cheer and instead honor all the magical--and messy--emotions conjured up this time of year--wonder and misery, hope and dread, sadness and deep happiness for having loved well-- we will be healthier, sturdier, and lighter going into the new year. Who doesn’t want that? Isn’t that the stuff of resilience? I believe it is. And I also believe we are more resilient than we’ve been led to believe. I believe, Santa.
Soon enough, the Times Square ball will drop again, Valentines will appear, fireworks will light the night sky, Diwali festivals will sparkle, goblins will trick or treat, menorahs will be lit, Christmas trees will glow. All over again.
Soon enough, new orange, purple, yellow, and pink tulips will burst through the soil under my maple tree. When I got home from London, long after dark, I spied a small, brown box in the shadows on my porch. It turned out to be a surprise ordered in April from my tender, tulip-loving husband. He wanted my sons and me to plant new blooms to remember him by each spring.
What a Jim thing to do. When I was done planting the last ones, I brushed the dirt from my jeans and felt his sweet self nearby. Off on what he called “My Next Great Adventure.” And I guess I’m on mine, too. However, it unfolds. Whatever it looks like. It’s uniquely mine and mine alone. On any given day. In any season.