LIVE BY DESIGN | Missing loved ones on festive and holiday occasions

We lose loved ones. We suffer. It is the profound privilege of our humanity to care deeply, to love another, and to know that we are all mortal. The loving gives joy; the losing hurts.

We have many occasions spread over the entire year, depending on our geography and faith orientation. Last week was Diwali. Yesterday, our New York family celebrated Thanksgiving. In two weeks, there will be Hannukah, Christmas is just a month away, and Ramadan will start in the first half of March 2024. There are also the holiday seasons. In the Southern Hemisphere, most of us are looking forward to our end-of-year summer vacation.

On each one of these occasions, many of us will have lost someone since the last time we celebrated together. Some of us may fear the festive occasion or holiday time ahead – fear of being overwhelmed by sadness and, possibly, fear of loneliness.

My father died at the early age of 68 when my mother was a young 65. For the next 24 years, my mother spent her Christmas with us. For the first 11 years, I sent her a ticket to join us. She’d come for six weeks. At age 76, she moved to be in the same city. My adult children gathered more than once for “granny’s last Christmas.” Then there she still was with us the next year, and the next, until she wasn’t.

My favourite grief writer is a Canadian philosophy professor, Thomas Attig. His second book, How We Grieve – Relearning the World, is one of those reading experiences where you feel pennies are dropping, dots are connecting, sunlight is finding its way into dark places.

I’ve chosen three quotes to share with you – my golden nuggets. Thank you, Thomas Attig!

Our vulnerability to a loss of wholeness

“Loss sunders the coherence of our present living patterns. We suffer more or less profound disorientation as daily routines once interwoven with those of the deceased lose viability. Internally, our perceptions, feelings, desires, motivations, dispositions, and habits are in disarray. Chaos and disharmony, dissonance, ambivalence, tension, and incoherence abound.” (p79)

Respecting individual ways of flourishing

“If we are to respect the individuality of those who are grieving, we must understand and appreciate the details of their lives before bereavement.”

How did they flourish while those now dead were with them? What did they do with and for those who died? How did sharing life with them colour and shape their experiences? How did they interweave their lives with those now ended in ways they found meaningful? (p69)

Reweaving our tapestry

Until we reweave new life patterns and redefine our hopes and aspirations for the future, our flourishing remains diminished. Respecting any of us when we grieve requires understanding the peculiarities and detailed contours of the reweaving required, the specifics of the tasks before us. (p77)

There is also the work of David Kessler (mentored by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross), who emphasises that we do not “get over” a loss. We learn how to move forward, integrating that loss as we shape our new way of being in the world.

Kessler’s most often quoted aphorism is: “Grief is as individual as your fingerprint.”

What have others done to support themselves on the kinds of festive and holiday occasions mentioned above? What might we learn from others? Some of the ideas are contradictory – and that is fine. What will work for one may be an anathema to another.

Take comfort in repeating traditions. My mother, Gina, needed to celebrate Christmas with family. She was okay with everyone dispersing for New Year but Christmas was sacrosanct.

Take comfort in breaking traditions. The Christmas after my husband died, I needed NOT to be with my family. I had the most wonderful time in Kerala, India, with a small group of old friends. It was marvellous. I recently read of parents who, after losing their child, spent their next Christmas in Paris. Father Ed Chaney said: “We didn’t leave the country to escape the grief, just to grieve on our own term.” Without having to worry about the reaction or emotionalism of others. (Steve Petrow, Washington Post. 17 November 2023)

Take comfort in doing something that brings back joyful memories. A signature dish, playing a game, rewatching a certain movie. My Czech mother grew up with the tradition of twelve soups for the Christmas evening meal. They used everything they grew on their farm, even making soup using plums. That’s how we honour my mom at Christmas – usually making three soups wherever we are at the time, and whoever we are with. Sharing photos and creating contrasts in the colours just as Gina would have done: roasted red pepper soup, carrot and ginger, cucumber.

Be willing to talk. Share stories. Sometimes, the bereaved feel inhibited to say aloud what a tough time they are having. They are scared that their feelings will spoil the occasion for others. Take the lead, share a story, and start the ball rolling. It is true the mood may change and might be less “jolly”. But it might also be more authentic, meaningful, and comforting – well worth the risk.

As Mapi and I deepen our work as grief educators, we would love to hear from you readers. Please share your experiences. What is something you or your family did that worked well for you at the time of a festive occasion or holiday?

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