Grief and the holidays

Grief during the holidays

Here we are… it’s the Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s holiday season. Again.

Last week I tried so hard to write a blog piece about all the things I am grateful for, a thankful post of sorts. As you can see, I didn’t do it. Let me rephrase that: I couldn’t do that. And not because I don’t have a million things to be thankful and grateful for, it just felt forced. This is our second holiday season without Beans. Throw in some COVID-19 lockdown and limited time with extended family and BOOM, you have a storm of emotions that I simply didn’t have control over.

Grief on a normal day is hard; however, grief during the holiday season is something else entirely. It’s wanting desperately to hang on to the memories and keep everything the exact same, while realizing that it won’t ever be the same. It’s experiencing crushing sadness in the midst of pure joy.

I don’t know if this will help you or not; however, here are a few things that I tell myself, not just through this holiday season, but throughout the year:

Let yourself feel. Last night my family watched “Elf” and if any of you know me, you know this is my absolute favorite movie of all time – like, I could watch it in July it’s that good. This movie brings me absolute pure joy. Last night, while my heart is bursting with joy, I started to cry during the end where they all have to “sing loudly for all to hear” to make the sleigh fly. I don’t know why, it just hit me in the feels. This is the feeling I’m talking about where I literally seem to float between joy and sudden sadness. And that’s OKAY! You have to allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions. The sounds, sights and smells of the holiday season may trigger feelings of sadness, loss, emptiness and anxiety. I read in an article a while back that “time doesn’t heal the pain associated with a loss; it’s what you do with that time that matters. Grief is the process by which you heal.” Rather than try to ignore the grief, we should embrace it.

Set boundaries for yourself. Last year we had plans to meet friends for drinks one evening. The whole day leading up to that singular event was excruciating. I knew I couldn’t do it. My heart hurt too much and I really just wanted to stay home and cry a little, snuggle with my husband and just feel. I tried to bury those feelings all day but in the middle of getting a car wash on our way to meet them, I looked at my husband and he just knew. He texted our friends and cancelled on the spot. This was a lesson for me to make sure that I’m setting boundaries for myself. You are not obligated to do anything, go anywhere or see anyone if you aren’t feeling it.

Honor your memories. Memories are the very thing that keep you solidly connected to those you have lost. It is so critical to continue to talk about your loved ones and cherish all the amazing memories you shared with them. It helps keep them alive so to speak. Christmas was always Nikolai’s favorite holiday and I love that even at 14 he would get up at 3 a.m. to see what Santa brought him and then go back to bed and lay awake anxiously for everyone else to get up. I love to picture his face on Christmas morning. I have a million memories of Nikolai at the holidays and my family will share them, talk about him, remember him and honor all of those memories.

Create new traditions. This one is tough for me as I’m not a lover of change. I thrive on tradition. However, over the course of time, new traditions just start to naturally emerge and someday I will be okay with that.

Ask for help. Last December I was in the absolute darkest of places, a black hole of sorts that I literally could not pull myself out of. I have a dear friend who literally said to me one day, “either you make an appointment with a therapist, or I’m making it for you.” We need these people in our lives. No one ever likes to ask for help. And this is one of the biggest hurdles we as humans must jump over if we are going to make change in this world. We need to admit that we can’t do everything ourselves. It’s okay to ask for help. People, by nature, want to help – it’s who we are. It doesn’t have to be a therapist, it could be a friend or family member. The point here is to reach out. Make the call. Ask for help.

This holiday season is no different than my every day, in that I will always choose joy while recognizing that I won’t always experience joy. I have much to be grateful and thankful for; however, I can also sit in the space of sadness once in a while and grieve my losses. We all feel broken sometimes. Just hold on, joy will always eventually shine through.

Grieving is lonely, yet you cannot do it alone

Grieving is lonely

Grief is uncomfortable.
When you grieve it is a constant struggle to capture the wide range of emotions that occur not just within a week or a day, but each dang minute. It’s struggling to figure out what kind of support I need when people ask. It’s figuring out what to say when people reach out. Grief is uncomfortable. It’s an awkward silence that is always there laying under the surface.

People never know what they should say to you. Heck, most days I don’t know what to say. I used to get angry at people for being awkward and weird around me, but honestly, grief is uncomfortable. And, I don’t have an answer to make it easier for you or me.

Here are just a few things I continue to tell myself every day…

Everyone has a different grief journey. There is no right or wrong.

I will never get over it; however, I will move through it.

Nikolai’s suicide was not my fault.

It is okay to smile and experience joy.

Do not allow people to shame you for not being the parent they think you should have been. They did not walk in your shoes and cannot possibly fathom your life or that of your son’s.

Keep writing.

How I decide to grieve is up to me. Don’t let anyone tell me how to do it.

Be patient with myself.

There is no timeline for grief.

Therapy is hard but you need it.

Grieving is lonely, yet you cannot do it alone.

Moving forward doesn’t mean letting go.

You will survive.

For those of you looking to comfort someone going through grief, please remember that the absolute most important thing you can do is just listen. So many of us are “fixers” and all we want to do is help the person grieving so we offer advice on how to get through situations. I don’t want you to fix me. You can’t fix me. Stop trying to fix me. Just hear me out. Let me cry, let me vent, let me talk, let me scream.

When someone you care about is grieving, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. We struggle with so many intense and painful emotions, including depression, anger, guilt, and profound sadness. And for many of us, we feel isolated and alone in our grief. Remember that it is simply your support and caring presence that will help those of us grieving cope with the pain and gradually begin to heal.

With deep love comes deep grief

The pain of grief

“The pain of grief is the price we pay for love.”

I don’t know where I read that quote but it feels spot on. As humans we love so deeply that when someone leaves our physical world, it brings on a pain that at times feels like your heart might literally break.

Yesterday we said goodbye to my grandma. My last remaining grandparent.

So much sad, and honestly, I am so tired of sad. This is not me. This is not how I want to be. I feel like I’m on this hamster wheel of joy and sad and I can’t get off. I know this is the reality of life, but could I please have a little more joy and less sad? Is this too much to ask?

They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. I want to say “uncle” right now. I’m glad He believes in me and my ability to hold it together when I need to; however, I really feel like I am hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

The intensity of my pain ebbs and flows as I assume it will for the rest of my life. Grief never goes away, we just somehow learn to manage it. Right?

Some days I fight the need to look to the heavens and scream the most guttural scream. The kind that sounds like your body just burst into a million pieces. Other days, I beg for silence and quiet to get me through.

Before my grandma died this week, I felt as though the joy-filled days were starting to outnumber the days of despair. This gives me hope. This feeling will not last forever. Joy happens a little bit every day, and while the loss and sadness will still show up, there is just too much happiness to be had.

I can’t let go

I still have Kola’s certificate of recognition

I still have Kola’s certificate of recognition for his freshman year playing in the Mott orchestra hanging on the side of our refrigerator. I can’t get myself to take it down. He was really proud of that certificate. He hated practicing the viola, but he really did like to play. He loved the class, all of his orchestra friends and even the concerts. Normally after concerts we go out for ice cream to celebrate. His last concert for Mott we didn’t. He was grounded and no matter what, I was sticking to the “no fun and joy” rule while you are grounded. I regret that decision to this very day.

I still have two voicemail messages from Nikolai on my phone. I used to make him call me every single day when he got home from school to let me know he was home, in the house and safe. Sometimes I couldn’t answer my phone at work and he would leave me a message. I treasure these voicemails. I don’t listen to them often and they are both less than 30 seconds long, but I won’t ever delete them. It’s his voice. In one of them he simply says, “hey mom, I’m home.” How ironic that is now. And sometimes, I pretend that it’s actually him calling me from Heaven – his way of letting me know he’s okay.

I cleaned his room a bit several months ago and regretted it the second I made his bed. This isn’t Nikolai. He was a total slob! After that I didn’t touch it. It’s hard to go in there. It still smells like him – for good, bad or otherwise. I mean, he was a boy after all. Right now it sits – unused and empty. The door remains closed with his name still taped up on the outside from when he wrote it out in marker and cut it out to hang up for decoration.

I don’t know what to do with any of this. What I do know is that I’m not doing anything with it right now.

After I cleaned up his room the first time, I literally felt instant despair. I cried for days. It was as if I had erased Nikolai’s existence from that space and I couldn’t bear what I had just done. How could I do that? So for now, I will do nothing with any of this. And that is simply okay. 

Writing is my therapy

I like words

I like words. Words have meaning to me. I’ve always been that person who can write out what I want to say better than I can speak it.

I keep a grateful journal, a blog journal and a journal of just my thoughts.

Words are my therapy. It’s the way I extract all those good and ugly things from my head.

And I love meaningful quotes, like this one from William Wordsworth, “fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

People say very powerful things and if you sit still long enough to listen or read them you will find they bring you motivation, inspiration, the drive to dream, the will to survive, a sense of purpose, determination and so much more.

I wear words as well. I have several bracelets that I wear every single day to remind me of the important things in life.

“We rise by lifting others.” – Be kind to people. It’s really that simple. Lift people up every single day. Give a random stranger a compliment. Open the door for someone. Say hi and smile. These aren’t big things, but to the person on the receiving end they could be HUGE things.

“Be the good.” – Be the change or be the good you want to see in this world. I try to live what I preach. You may never know the impact you make on a person, but by gosh make it a good one.

“One day at a time.” – My friend Jamie gave me this bracelet this week as a reminder that each day is different and that’s okay. Each day I may experience joy and sadness and that’s okay. That right now, taking one day at a time is okay.

“Joy.” – Have you ever chosen a word of the year? A word that you want to live your year by? I have done this the last several years and this year, I chose joy. I’ve been wearing this bracelet since the beginning of the year, not knowing that my immediate future was going to be filled with days of such immense pain and heartache that joy would be the farthest thing from my mind. Here’s the thing… I truly believe that God put the word joy in my heart at the beginning of the year for this very reason. Because even in this period of extreme heartache, there is joy to be found in each day, in each memory. Not a day goes by that I don’t have a dozen memories go through my mind and heart of Nikolai that make me laugh or smile. He was a funny guy and he did and said funny stuff. I also experience joy when my other two boys come home from their days at school and work and share all the things. Joy is my husband bringing me coffee in the morning. Joy is a hug from a friend. Joy surrounds me all the time and makes those darker times a little more bearable.