A Complicated Holiday

This holiday season will be unlike any other I’ve experienced. You see, my Mom passed away suddenly just after Thanksgiving. The weeks that followed were a whirlwind for me; travelling to my hometown in rural British Columbia, funeral planning, making sure my Dad was doing okay and had some support, and also trying to navigate and support my young son through the experience of losing the only grandma he knew. I pushed my needs down the list, which goes against all the advice out there on handling grief, but “keeping calm and carrying on” has been a coping mechanism. I felt I didn’t have much of a choice because moms don’t have the luxury of completely falling apart. My only choice, I felt, was to keep my routine of going to work every day, running a household and co-ordinating a busy family schedule because others were relying on me. My university studies, however, became a casualty of the trauma of losing my mother. I’ve tried many times to sit down to study but, every time, I found I could not. I have often told myself during the past couple of months that, on the whole, I’ve been doing okay?not out of arrogance, but out of a combined sense of self-reassurance and self-soothing.

Throughout the process of dealing with loss, the writer in me has sought out comforting words to try to articulate these most difficult of feelings, but words fail more often than not. I’ve looked at web pages?of which there are hundreds?and searched for books at the public library on how to grieve. I’ve discovered that the topic is written from any perspective imaginable, but right now I feel all of the perspectives come up short and feel so empty because their grief is not mine. But a wise friend said something that really resonated with me. She said that the experience of losing a loved one makes people part of a club, one that everyone gets admitted to at some point, but it is secret because hardly anyone openly talks about belonging to it. This isn’t only true about death; the same can be said for any sort of loss, be it health issues, unemployment or painful family relationships.

Of course, now the holiday season comes into play. Normally, I really enjoy the rituals of baking and decorating and writing out cards while accompanied by a soundtrack of holiday tunes. However, I find that, this year, instead of these activities energizing me they are completely draining. This has been the biggest surprise about how things have changed.

The problem with dealing with loss at this time of year is that everything is focussed outward?the light displays, the parties, seeking out all those perfect presents, and the emphasis on being close to loved ones. No one seems to quite know what to do with the members of the secret club, especially the “new recruits”, who have only recently lost someone who was an integral part of their celebrations. Dealing with loss is such an intimate, individual process; so it is easy for those who are grieving to feel isolated instead of connected, especially when everyone else appears so merry. This aspect of the holidays tends to get glossed over in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. The unwritten rule is no one is really allowed to speak of difficult things in case the magic gets ruined for everyone else. Yes, I’ve read all tips on surviving the holidays, ones that include lighting a candle in memory of the loved one, setting a place at the table for them, and even talking to them out loud as if they were in the room. But right now, all these things just don’t feel right. Granted, they might at some point, but right now, nothing seems to fit, and I am not prepared for feeling this way or know how I should best react.

When I paid attention to how drained I was, I realized that my lack of energy was a message my inner self was sending me, telling me what it needed. It was saying that I needed to take some time to reflect and absorb everything that had recently happened. Traditionally, this is what New Year’s is for, but once I understood this message, I allowed myself to let go of the external pressure. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to my husband and son to cancel our celebrations altogether, but I realized that, this year, I needed a break from the glitter and fancy wrapping that the holidays tend to be packaged in. I needed to downsize the scale and scope of everything. I realized that simplifying would give my soul the chance to do what it needed. As a result, at least for this year’s holiday season, I have chosen not to spend time in chaotic shopping malls, and I’ve let go of the need to purchase a gift for everyone. My shortbread will be store-bought this year, instead of homemade, and my decorations will be kept to a minimum. I have given myself permission to just sit quietly with a cup of tea and a film on Netflix if I feel if that is what I need at that moment. Permission to not go out to social events where I don’t feel comfortable?and that choice is truly okay.

I hope that others feel the courage to do the same sort of holiday downsizing, even if they aren’t going through the pain of grief right now. I think taking a step back from time to time and celebrating what is truly important in a simple way is healthy. And I say a special message to you, the fellow members of the secret club, the ones who have also recently lost a loved one, I truly hope you can summon the strength you need to get through this difficult time. My wish for you, whose feelings of grief and loss are so raw and new and foreign, is to not feel the need to bow to the pressures of the “must do” and “ought to” lists, but to do what only you feel you truly want to do, not what you feel obligated to do. My wish for anyone who is going through any sort of a difficult time right now is that they can give themselves the gift of treating themselves gently and, perhaps most importantly, to allow themselves to feel whatever emotions bubble up to the surface?even if those feelings turn out to be complicated and bewildering?and especially if they go against the grain of what society dictates that people should feel this time of year.

For many, this holiday season will not be completely joyful. But I hope in the midst of the pain, they can still feel loved and, despite the difficult emotions of loss, they can find a measure of peace.

Carla is an AU student majoring in English. She welcomes comments and discussion on her Twitter feed, @LunchBuster.