Blog: Getting to the other side of holiday grief after two pandemic years of loss and separation

It is the end of the year. As children wait anxiously for Christmas day unwrapping, the Festival of Lights, or other holiday traditions they hold dear, adults finish their gift shopping and wait reluctantly for the snow and ice that will soon cover the ground, the windshields of cars, and the stairs and walkways we trudge upon.

As the year draws to an end, so comes with it a melancholy felt by many around the impending holidays. We might wonder: Where has the time gone? Have I done enough this year? Why do I feel alone when I'm in a room full of people I love? When will I not be alone?  Pablo Hurtado

There is an unmistakable, yet ne'er mentioned sadness that pervades the air during the holiday season. In a year spent readjusting and reconnecting, after 2020 forced us not only away from family members, but also away from society, many are once again gearing up to sit around the Christmas tree as we did the Thanksgiving table, before we collectively ring in the New Year.

With the holiday bustle of gatherings, comes mourning for many. It is not a fun topic—not one brought up often for fear of bringing down the mood—but it is one experienced silently. As once filled spots around our tree and table are now empty, we remember loved ones lost to time, to sickness that does not discriminate, or to another ailment or accident in the past two years. 

Thinking of the pandemic and its rising death toll, it is important to acknowledge that heavy hearts will be all around us this year and few will pass through the holidays unscathed. But with acknowledgement comes acceptance. It is okay to feel less than okay.

The expectation of joy in the air, the songs playing through stores as holiday shopping gets done, the jingle bells ringing all carries with it an electricity that is difficult to cut through sometimes. Still, there are holiday songs that reflect the inherent woe that comes with the season, too, from “Blue Christmas,” to “If I make it Through December,” and even “Grown Up Christmas List.”

I don't think it is a coincidence that so many Christmas songs are about longing for something or someone who is no longer here. Winter gives us the opportunity to retreat, not only from the cold, but also from others, in general. Snuggling into a blanket, away from the outside world, is easier for many than throwing on a Christmas hat, and greeting everyone with a jolly, “Happy Holiday.”

Some of us feel overwhelmed by expectation and pressure this time of year; others feel lost in idea of a New Year and the uncertainty it brings. Others yet battle seasonal mood disorders, which may require clinical attention or be treatable with a few home remedies.

But perhaps the real trouble with feeling grief around the holidays is that, for many, these emotions are not easily explained, so the thought of seeking out an antidote for them, or reconciling where they come from can be difficult.

As a child, I often felt bad on Christmas Eve when midnight struck, and it was time to celebrate. Even when I was unwrapping gifts, I always felt a melancholy I could not explain. I put a smile on my face to show thanks for the gifts my parents gave me, and there was joy somewhere inside me, but it was nestled into a place overwhelmed by the other feelings that were there, too. These feelings didn’t stem from disappointment. Instead, they were emotions I simply could not rationalize, and it wouldn't be for many years that I understood why I got so sad on the holidays.

Just as the root cause of grief during the holidays can be confusing, there is no universal way to navigate this grief either. Some who are feeling blue may embrace holiday traditions, adorning their homes with lights and decorating trees in hopes of shaking off the sadness; others may retreat, entirely happy to sit the month out on the couch, and others yet may be simply content to accept the holiday season however it comes to them. It is important to find the path that works best to help you get through and to understand you are not alone in the way you feel.

Around this time of year, I can’t help but think of the many undocumented immigrants in our country. As a child it was never far from my mind that many of those close to me couldn’t see loved ones who were far away, an experience that wasn’t unique to me, but shared by many people I knew. Now as an adult I wonder often how they get through it. Those who, as young adults, moved away from their loved ones to build a life for themselves here and are now in their 40s and 50s with families of their own. They are people who have spent much of their lives away from their loved ones, away from their parents who raised them and their own holiday traditions from childhood.

I think of the time they have lost and how they cannot visit their families for fear of not being able to return to the U.S., which they have called home for the better part of their lives. While many of us rejoice and come together every year, many immigrants have only phone calls, letters, and now, perhaps Zoom calls, to communicate with loved ones far away. But as many of us have experienced during the pandemic, a face on a screen is incomparable to a physical embrace, to standing in front of those you love and feeling them close to you. Thousands live this way—and have for decades—and for this reason, the holidays bring about a longing that is not easy to fill. It is a longing that is, unfortunately, sometimes never filled.

When I think about longing, I think about my mother, and how she is not here to celebrate with our family this year, once again. Her loss in the summer of 2020 has led me to think of the many years she spent without her own parents who passed when I was just a child, not old enough to remember them now. I wonder now how I would feel if they were still here. I fear I would be resentful toward them for not providing my mother with the upbringing a child deserves, where a park bench was never substituted for a bed, free of pain or hurt she would later channel into advocating against domestic violence—Even with the knowledge that her love for them never wavered, and her grief never dissipated as she grew older.

On more nights than I can count, I sat with my mother and listened as she recounted how much she missed her parents, never knowing how difficult her upbringing was until many years later. Sometimes, I imagine my mother's childhood Christmases in the 70s, her sitting cross legged at 8-years-old in front of a Christmas tree (if there was one that year), wondering what joys the next day would bring. Outside would be the Texas chill, incomparable to the harsh Midwestern winters she would later experience with her own family in Fort Wayne, as her children waited for midnight to strike. Those nights are like the Christmases we experience now, as adults, with her grandchildren, now that she is not here to spend time with them.

The holidays change as families grow and shrink and grow again. As loved ones leave us, they leave behind seats that we cannot fill, and the beauty is, we don’t have to.

Sometimes, the joy is just not there, and that’s okay. There will be years where everyone gathers to ring in the New Year, and years when we find ourselves with a quaint evening that is more intimate, maybe with just one other person, or maybe alone.

Still, we can remember those we have lost and work in our own special ways to keep the traditions and the customs they showed us alive.

Keep the spirit your loved ones brought you. Do your best to navigate through this season, and come out the other side. When the holidays are over, time will continue to move forward, and what you are feeling, too, shall pass.
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