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Written by Dr. Chelsea Sanders

This is a blog post about grief during the holidays. Specifically, grief related to death of a loved one. This is not a how-to guide on grieving during the holidays. This is not even a what-to-expect when you’re grieving post. This is really just a psychologist sharing her experience of grief during the holidays.

This will be my third Christmas without my brother, Brandon. He died unexpectedly in March of 2020. The weekend that the world shut down was the weekend my world imploded. I felt absolutely eviscerated. The devastation surfaces to my chest now, as I type these words. Of course it does. How could it not?

Maybe you know the feeling. The heartache of loss has the ability to cut like a knife (such a cliché but accurate), and the nature of loss is such that it doesn’t cut just once. It’s over and over again, like a cruel defiance of time and space, often taking us by surprise; whether it’s a song that comes on during your commute home, a photo that flashes across your memories on social media, or a physical location steeped in shared experiences from the past. The frequency with which these triggers occur and intensity of their impact vary, and seem to be especially related to our willingness to feel them and the acuity of our grief. For me, in the days following his death, I saw Brandon in absolutely everything – the ocean, the sky, the trees, the grass. Everything shimmered with a vibrance that was his lifeforce, somehow both omnipresent and out of my reach. My love for him was amplified, and thus, so was the pain. 

I think of him and feel my loss daily, but these gut-wrenching moments are fewer and farther between. That is, until holiday season emerges with the kickstart of his birthday in early fall. It never fails to surprise me. Despite my best efforts to prepare, I find myself surrounded by precious holiday memory landmines, stumbling through one weary step at a time. They don’t take me out completely like they once threatened to, but sometimes I am weighed down for days, less motivated or interested in things I enjoy. Sometimes I move through with laser focus as if I could erase the pain from my periphery, only to collapse into a puddle of tears at the first sign of stillness. 

What do I do with this? How do I go on? There is no secret here; just keep going. No one and nothing can take away the pain of losing someone you love. Nor should it. You can’t really do anything to hurry up your healing, but here’s what I’ve learned about what can make the healing harder:

  1. Judge yourself. Would you judge a friend for missing their late brother, daughter, best friend, spouse, mother? Try to have some compassion for yourself now that you’re here, in this place of pain. Watch for harsh judgments you harbor towards yourself for being angry or sad, and look out for any unnecessary expectations you’re carrying for your grief timeline (hint: they’re all unnecessary). For some tangible guidance on how to practice self-compassion, check out Dr. Bonds’ past post on the topic.
  2. Push it away. This might manifest by avoiding triggers, blocking out memories, pretending to be “fine,” isolating, or compulsively engaging in activities with immediate gratification (e.g. social media, gambling, shopping, gaming, using substances). These activities aren’t inherently bad or wrong, and neither is momentarily pushing away your pain, but as Dr. Brew poetically pointed out in her last blog, grief demands to be felt. You don’t have to look very hard; it will find you. Your job is to simply welcome it when you can. You don’t have to like it, but it’ll be knocking on your door all night anyway, so might as well let it in. Talk about it with trusted friends or join a support group, listen to their favorite music and look through old photos, continue shared traditions and engage in sacred rituals, etc. Maybe even write a blog about it 😉 
  3. Take care of others before yourself. Seriously, this well-intentioned move does no one any good. It keeps us trapped in a story that our loved ones need us to show up for them at all costs. Not only is this storyline unlikely and impossible to live up to, it seriously underestimates our living loved ones’ abilities to do their own work. Start with the basics of nourishing and moving your body, then build-up to setting limits and saying “no.” I cannot understate how hard this is for some of us. Try doing it anyway.

I wish that I had some other life-changing perspective or psychological magic to offer, but these words are all I have for now. There is nothing else to say or do, except to keep going. I’ll be here, walking my path through grief and loss right alongside you. For what it’s worth, the inverse of my previous statement about love amplifying pain is true: when we make space for pain, we make space for love. For all those missing a loved one this holiday season, I see you. We are not alone and our pain deserves to be witnessed, just as our loved ones deserve to be remembered. Take good, sweet care of yourselves. In a loving tribute to Brandon, I’ll leave you with these Modest Mouse lyrics:

“Your body may be gone, I’m gonna carry you in.
In my head, in my heart, in my soul.”

Ocean Breathes Salty, Modest Mouse