Finding Hope and Healing During Humbug Holidays

“Why is everyone so darn happy? They obviously don’t know how life can be ruined in an instant when you lose your ________ (you fill in the blank with husband, wife, partner, child, parent, best friend, marriage, job, house, dignity…). I hate this time of year.” Does this sound like self-talk that resonates with you?

"Why is everyone so darn happy?"

The loss that some of us are facing this holiday season is deeply personal, and it may feel overwhelming, with no relief in sight. You may not only be missing the person or thing that you’ve lost, but also the hopes and dreams that were connected. This is grief, and it can be excruciating. Grief offers us a reason to disengage from all that is going on around us. Grief offers us an excuse to be angry, anxious, depressed, lonely and withdrawn. Grief offers us a quiet and dark place to get stuck. Does this sound at all familiar to you? If you are in the midst of experiencing great sadness after a significant loss, then know that you are not alone. Know also that your grief can be an integral part of your journey toward hope, healing and renewal.

Grief offers us a reason to disengage from all that is going on around us....Grief offers us a quiet and dark place to get stuck.

On this journey it’s helpful to remember that:

  • There is no timeline for the resolution of grief. Regardless of the type of loss you are experiencing, this is a very individual process. It’s also typical to re-experience grief annually, or several years after a profound loss, even when you feel that you have moved on with your life.
  • Grief may be experienced with a broad swath of emotions, including anger, deep sadness, denial, shock, and guilt, as well as fear of the unknown. Your grief may include one or more of these feelings, along with feelings that may seem particularly unsettling, like relief. 
  • Grief is not just emotional; it can be physical too. When anxiety is present (as it often is with grief) our cortisone level increases in response to our brain preparing us for a fight or flight response to the stress that we are experiencing. This causes our nervous system to become over-stimulated, and our immune system to become compromised. These physical circumstances impact our ability to accurately gauge our environment as well as the responses of others, effectively shaping the lens through which we view the world. Hence grief can begin to feel endless, painfully isolating, physically draining and mentally exhausting.   
  • Emotion is strongly linked to memory, as well as to certain events, smells, and songs that can trigger tears. It’s often difficult to get through holiday outings that bring a clash these triggers. It’s OK to opt out of events that feel too difficult, or to build in flexibility and manage expectations when attending. Let the host know that you may need to arrive late or depart early. If the annual gift and cookie exchanges seem meaningless, then skip them this year.
  • Become aware of others in need and consider how you might help. Volunteering your time, talents and resources can be personally rewarding, especially during the holidays.
  • Honor your loss by continuing an old tradition, then honor yourself by creating a new holiday experience that could become a sweet memory or even a new tradition for future years.
  • Ask for what you need, and be clear about what is not helpful. Loved ones, friends and neighbors are not issued “how to” manuals when our loss occurs. Often those that have been close to us become mute, absent or thoughtless in the midst of our suffering. It can be hard for them to find meaningful words of comfort, and it can be hard for you to be responsive when you’re feeling numb. When asked how they can help you, be specific. If a kind gesture is made, all that is required of you is to say “thank you.” No need to reciprocate, or to feel additional stress or guilt when accepting the kindness of others.
  • Seek otherness. Humans are hard-wired for relational connectivity. The connections that we find most satisfying are those that are personal, and often involve the human touch. This cannot happen in front of a screen, on social media or via text. Grief is best worked through with friendship, group or family therapy, and with individual counseling.  
  • Start a gratitude journal for the new year ahead. Don’t wait until January 1st. Acknowledge your loss and the pain that it has caused you. Then think about how your narrative might shift with a different perspective. Be kind to yourself, and open to all possibilities. Begin today, in anticipation of another chapter that can bring unexpected opportunities and new beginnings.
“Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have - life itself.”
- Walter Anderson

austin family Institute