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Grief at Christmas: Carrying the weight of loss

While grief is something we all face, it is possible to strike a balance between hope and reality. A vital step in this journey is to acknowledge that the only way is through. Unfortunately, society is not built to adequately support people through their loss. In fact, Megan Devine’s It’s OK That You’re Not OK argues that our culture is grief illiterate, and this characteristic becomes painfully salient during Christmas. However, rituals and self-compassion can soften its impact, and help us adjust to life without a loved one.

Myth: Grief is a problem 

Devine observes that grief is perceived as a detour from ‘normal’ life, and if it continues for more than 6 months, it is pathologized through the diagnosis of ‘complex grief’. Grief is the opposite of happiness, and happiness equates to health. So, when we grieve, something is wrong with us which requires fixing. 

For those who take an optimistic approach to grief, it is regarded as an opportunity for growth. Our loss is a gift that can transform us, and if we do not find gold in the death of a loved one, then we’ve failed to develop spiritually or personally. This is reflected in films and books which tell us that normality is always possible after loss, or emphasize the lessons we can learn from death. Uncomfortable feelings are shunned.

Those who comfort people who are grieving can unintentionally invalidate the profound sense of loss because it feels like an attempt to erase their feelings. For example, we try to apply logic to death (‘everything happens for a reason,’) or highlight the ‘positives’ (‘at least he died doing something he loved’). But, Devine notes, all the bereaved hears is ‘stop feeling so bad.’ 

Of course, this is not the individual’s fault, as they do these things with the intention to help. However, it highlights that society does not teach us how to live with grief, how to bear witness to it or equip us with the skills to withstand it. 

Reality: Loss has no shortcut  

For her, grief is not a problem to be fixed because it isn’t a problem, and we align with this honest perspective. Loss is the underbelly of love; the cost of opening our hearts to the full human experience which comprises joy and pain. It is total and final, with no shortcut. The notion that light does not exist without darkness calls to mind the Japanese saying mono no aware which captures a feeling of transience; the beautiful sadness that all things are impermanent

We even deny ourselves the permission to grieve. This backfires because, as Devine writes, ‘there is no place loss has not touched,’ which is why ‘acknowledgement is everything’. Ultimately, we are repeatedly confronted with the fragility of life, especially during the holidays, which are so rooted in creating memories with loved ones. Social gatherings become unbearable as the small talk is a stark contrast to the significance of the loss. 

We assume our evaluation of the person is correlated with how events unfold. As much as we wish that this was so, our love for them and what happens to them run on two separate tracks. Love does not protect us from loss, rather love defines the depth of our grief. And the joviality of Christmas makes the injustice of this paradox palpable.

Christmas: Bearing the weight

How can we endure the festive season when we are grieving the absence of loved ones? Here are some thoughts from Kamwell:

  1. Grief is exhausting and the intensity of emotions can take its toll. You may agree to attend an event but then feel too tired on the day. Go at your own pace and schedule some quiet time if you are socialising.  
  2. If you are enjoying yourself, let it be so. Feeling joy can create guilt, as we believe it means that we’ve forgotten about our loved one. However, joy after their passing will never invalidate your love for them. We can, and often do experience ambivalence such that happiness and sadness can co-exist. Try not to judge yourself for feeling a particular way by remembering that emotions are neither right or wrong, they just are.
  3. Grief can make us feel groundless, but rituals help us honour the relationship with our loved one by providing comfort and constancy. Choose a ritual that is meaningful to you whether it’s lighting a candle, watching their favourite film or listening to a song they loved. In performing rituals, we find connectedness and a vessel for our grief.

For those who are spending the holidays with someone who is grieving, remember it is human nature to try to eliminate suffering. However, even in the happier moments, their sadness remains to a degree. 

As there is no side-stepping grief, we must acknowledge their loss by not scrambling to dry their tears but catch them. In so doing, we allow them the time and space for grief to become their companion, and emerge from the other side of loss.

When it comes to grief, we trust the guidance and wisdom of grief expert Lizzie Pickering whose new book When Grief Equals Love will be available in May 2023.

Word count: 869

Date: 28th November 2022