I have a day planner. I schedule things. I have to, because, as my father would so eloquently state it, “Steven, you couldn’t find your [back side] if you used both hands.” So, thus equipped and forewarned with such comprehensive, mentoring insight, I learned to write things down. Appointments, travel plans, meetings, doctor’s appointments, haircuts, car repair – the rhythms and duties of modern life.
But you can’t schedule grief.
You see them every day. They wear the bravest face. They’ve lost something they love. They are the grieving ones.
Grief is no respecter of our orderly, tidy, well-planned lives. The mystery of both life and death sit above and beyond the comforting group illusion we call “time and space.” Grief trumps everything.
Which is why, each year about this time, I hold a special place in my thoughts and prayers for the grieving ones. Grief is hard at any time. Whatever you think it might be like, you end up wishing it could be that easy. But it seems especially poignant to imagine the broken-hearted this time of year.
The quiet of the approaching winter solstice. A cultural festival (Christmas) that is awash in symbol, ceremony and tradition no matter which way you turn. Relentless invitations to nostalgia. Iconic images of family, hearth and home.
If this is your first December without a loved one, then it’s likely the absence of him/her will feel especially present. This absent, weeping place in your heart will require your attention, even as you try to pay attention to the season’s festivities. It’s a tightrope walk on a razor blade.
Too much to keep inside. They have to cry or die. A time of life is done. They are the grieving ones.
As I said, my heart goes out to the newly grieving ones at Christmas.
Can I share some ideas with you?
First, the singular worst thing you can do is to pretend. To try and ‘go through the motions’ as if everything can be instantly pushed into normal. Because nothing will be normal. So, deciding to “cheer up” and put a Stepford Wife, mechanized smile on your face complete with a slightly over-the-top sing-song in your voice – forget it. Don’t even try. You’ll make it worse.
Try these things instead …
Make the departed loved one’s absence overt. Make the absence present. Like the family who set a place for grandpa at the Christmas dinner table, hanging his signature fedora over the top of the chair. Like the family who placed a 5×7 photo of a departed child right into the branches of the Christmas tree. Include a moment of silence and remembrance in the prayer over your family feast. Gather everyone into the back yard and release a balloon. Find some way to symbolize the departed’s absence, thereby making them present.
Expect tears. Expect to shift spontaneously between crying and laughing. I know it feels a little nuts, but I swear it’s normal. As the family gathers, expect “tag team” grief. Okay, mom, you sit there and weep, I’ll carve the turkey while Aunt Millie conjures gravy and the grandkids throw the football in the back yard. Whoops – now mom’s up to help serve while Uncle Bob leans over the mantle and finds his tears. Take turns. There will be time for everyone.
Continue traditions by installing new people in the formerly held “office.” If the departed always made fresh cranberry sauce, the have her sister to take over the job. If the departed had for years carved the turkey, then hand the knife to a sibling, an eldest son or daughter or grandchild. I will never forget the first Christmas after my paternal grandfather died, when my grandmother handed me the family bible and asked me to read the story of the nativity, something he had always done. I was 11 years old.
Bring one new tradition. Something to signify how this family is, this year, different. It can be as simple as a new dish to the meal. A new way to pray around the table. Perhaps an act of charity/philanthropy for the community.
Or, if necessary for this first holiday season, some families reach for a strategy called “Get outa Dodge!” Leave. Go to the beach. The mountains. Retire into solitude. For this one time, just abandon all regular traditions and withdraw.
Hello begins goodbye. That’s the way of this life. So go ahead and cry. Say all of your goodbyes. So you can let go. And say hello.
Grief is a noble art. Each tear will stretch your heart. There’s more room now for love. God bless the grieving ones.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)