For those of us who have lost a loved one right before the holidays, this time of year is not the happy and jolly times that commercials describe. To this day, I like many of you really don’t have any desire to decorate anything. The difficulty is that the world doesn’t stop revolving for any of us because of our loss. The carols ring, the lights illuminate and the Santas are jolly.
As I write this blog, we’re one week away from Christmas. I consider what this means to myself and others; and after discussing the subject with a client the other day I decided to address the stresses and the drama that the holidays can evoke in people. Not necessarily from the perspective of self-improvement and discovery, which is usually the theme of my blogs and usually are directed toward individuals or businesses – no, this time it’s of a very personal nature of mine that allows me to relate.
Nine years ago my father died nine days before Christmas. This seems to be extremely common that loved ones seem to die around the holidays and millions of people are impacted.
There are usually grieving loved ones left after someone passes on; but when near and around a holiday, the experience is inextricably connected to the holiday and year after year, these anniversaries continue to be the source of re-experienced grief. It’s not that loved ones are ever forgotten but around a holiday? It becomes something of much greater issue.
My loss was not unlike others who are having to again experience the loss within the next couple of weeks, in fact one important person in my life lost her mother on Christmas day. Another friend had her mother pass a few weeks before and so on and so on.
For those of us who lost someone during this Christmas season it can be really tough. And it’s not just Christmas morning that causes the pain either – the loss is connected to many of the traditions that families develop during the holidays. My father was to have relatively simple surgery a few weeks before the holiday and the procedure would allow him to walk better. This was considered to be such a safe procedure that my wife and I purchased tickets for a Caribbean cruise and we were taking my parents. He was supposed to be able to dance again with my mother.
With great foresight my wife suggested that we put up the Christmas tree earlier than normally would be done, so that my father would be able to experience the tradition and not miss it while in recovery, and just in case something happened…
You see, putting the tree up was a BIG deal in my house growing up; it wasn’t stressful, as many people describe today. My father was always in charge of putting the lights on, then all of us children would attach ornaments (those we had individually made) and my mother would put on the balls – you know those fragile ones that could break just by looking at them. As kids, our goal was to live long enough and become old enough to be able to be trusted to put on those fragile ones.
Well, after growing up and having a family of my own, I continued the tradition – I as the father would put the lights on with care. Done in such a manner that the lights would have a three dimensional glow and with such care that it would take three times as long to take off the lights as it did to put them on. Then I would sit back and watch the kids put on the rest; again, carrying on the tradition. Years later, and thankfully to my wife, my parents came and lived with us – the tradition wouldn’t change, I’d still do the lights. My father seemed to sit and smoke his pipe watching the orchestra of tree assembly – he seemed to watch in pride – seeing the torch passed…
As you likely expected, my father never made it home that Christmas and we like many were stuck trying to have Christmas mean something to us all. We all knew the true meaning of Christmas and always focused on this for ourselves and with the children but the traditions and joy of the family gathering, tradition and gift exchange was never to be the same again. We struggled through for the kids but nothing was the same.
The essence of this is how do we deal with all of this? How do we keep the pain of the past from permanently contaminating our ability to enjoy these occasions? The answer could be to get back to basics, to get back to understanding the true meaning of Christmas. It could be this but it’s not. The fact is that because of how our emotional systems work, it is essentially impossible to eliminate the pain without just forgetting. But do we really want to forget the ones we lost because the memory of their passing is so painful? Generally not – I know I don’t.
The real secret of how to deal with this phenomenon is found in understanding how our emotional systems work. Our emotionally, painful times are recorded in our memories as isolated occurrences but when they occur at a time surrounded by recurring events such as the traditions that occur during the holidays, the memories are re-experienced.
To further the difficulty, music has the tendency to cement memories even deeper within us. Lastly, the sense of smell is considered to be the strongest sense that is tied to memories. So… recurring experiences of tradition, music of carols AND smells of baking?? It’s the trifecta of the perfect storm of painful re-experience of painful memories. So what do we do? … without forgetting our loved ones?
The secret is not in remembering the painful holidays following the passing, it is in re-experiencing the holidays with the loved ones. I know this may seem too easy but try it. Every time you here the carol that brings a tear to your eye or are saddened by decorating the tree – specifically recall as many holiday memories that include the loved one who is no longer with you. If you keep doing this, your mind will begin to re-associate the events of the holidays with those newly recalled memories.
Our emotional system is a bizarre collection of systems and many of these emotions can be evoked from our loss. This process is not meant to in any way lessen the importance of our loved ones – it is so that we can again enjoy our times, our traditions and our holiday. This isn’t an overnight process but you must continue to take these steps. It will work and you will again enjoy.
… Of course if you’re like me, sometimes – just sometimes, we want to experience the loss. If you’re like me, it’s in the car when no one has to see you shed that tear… or two… or three.
Please share with those who might be helped with this blog.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all.