Ever since my sister and I were small children, the Christmas season was an important part of our lives.
Our mother put a lot of effort into making sure Christmas was special. From covering our house in decorations to constantly playing Christmas music, we were brought up with the understanding that this holiday was to be celebrated by expressing joy and gratitude.
However, after our mother died, my sister and I began associating the holiday season with the reminder of her death.
Because she died a few days before Christmas in 2007, I remember the sorrow my father, sister and I had while driving back home on Christmas Eve after visiting family.
As we looked out the window of our minivan at the decorated homes filled with happy families, our hearts could no longer capture the spirit of the holidays our mother expected us to have.
The holidays are often considered a time to be joyful, but they can also be a reminder of the absence of loved ones or personal grief relating to a loss of a job, a recent divorce, family dysfunction or a change in one’s health.
While carrying the burden of grief during the holidays is challenging enough, often those who struggle during this time of year feel as if they cannot express their grief because there is an expectation to be joyful despite the pain we feel.
There also are emotional and physical changes we see in ourselves when we experience grief during the holidays.
Recently, I consulted with my sister, Catherine Schilling, who is a pre-licensed therapist in the state of Washington, about how grief can affect us during the holidays.
“If someone is feeling grief, they may notice physically they feel run down, fatigued or have low motivation during the holidays,” she said. “For some, negative emotions can impact the immune system, leading to colds or flare-up of chronic illnesses.”
“Socially, a grieving person may isolate more, be less engaged in the world around them,” Catherine said. “Some people step back socially and may lose energy. Others may throw themselves into work or overbook themselves as a coping mechanism or distraction.”
As a professional chaplain in the healthcare industry, I have worked with many families who associate grief with the holidays.
Additionally, my sister has worked with clients emotionally struggling during the holiday season.
Combined with our professional skills with our own personal experiences, we have come up with five ways individuals can find emotional and spiritual healing during this time of year.
- Recognize societal misconceptions when it comes to dealing with grief and the holidays.
“American culture especially emphasizes cheer and merriment but doesn’t often give people space to grieve, despite it being a very natural human experience,” Catherine said. “Therefore, when people feel a sense of sadness or grief around the holidays, often they question, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I happy?’”
From a spiritual perspective, I’ve also seen this prevalent in many of our faith communities, especially in the Christian faith tradition.
While Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, we often believe we need to feel complete and joyful to capture the meaning of the Christmas season. When we fail to meet this expectation, we struggle spiritually.
- Be aware of certain emotional triggers that may come up during the holiday season and how we react to them.
“Looking at Christmas trees or cooking a family recipe, these are often unavoidable triggers,” Catherine explained. “Do you get mad at yourself when you feel grief or sadness? Do you launch into self-criticism for not being able to control your feelings? These are examples of how we antagonize an injury.”
- Tell yourself that it’s OK if you are feeling grief and, in doing so, permit yourself to reach out to others for support.
“Reach out, send a text or call a support person in your life,” Catherine said. “Is it just a desire to be comforted? You’re in luck; even self-soothing acts can produce oxytocin (‘the cuddle hormone’) and can soften difficult emotions. Little acts such as making a hot beverage, wrapping up in a warm blanket or taking a hot shower (my personal go-to) can all be ways to soothe tough emotions.”
- Set aside time and create a ritual to allow grief.
For my sister, it was the ritual after our mother died of taking a walk in the snowy woods around her college that allowed her to process how she was feeling.
“I didn’t bring anyone along, didn’t text or take pictures. I just walked around, watched my exhale appear in the cold crisp air, and let my mind and heart wander,” she said. “I thought about my mom, the good, the complicated. I felt my heart lurch at times. But at the end of my walk I also had a sense of peace, as though I had connected with her in a way like I had connected with myself.”
- Look for ways to incorporate your grief during the holidays into your spiritual story regardless of your religious or spiritual faith tradition.
I had to learn that for those of us of the Christian faith, we aren’t expected to be grief-free to capture the meaning of Christmas.
In fact, Christmas is about recognizing the birth of the one who will walk with us in our grief, and, through the resurrection, will someday take away that grief.
One such tradition that has been helpful to me is attending “Blue Christmas” services.
These services, which are now offered by many churches, are geared toward those who struggle with grief during the holidays.
Through Scripture reading, lighting candles and often through contemplative Taizé-style music, attendees can explore the connection between their loss and the presence of the spiritual divine in their lives.
While many of us will always associate grief with the holidays, learning how to acknowledge what you feel during this time of year and incorporating this loss into your spiritual story is a way to help you get through a season that expects us to be ever-joyful.
But more important, learning how to permit yourself to grieve during the holidays is the first step to finding healing not just emotionally, but also spiritually.
These suggestions aren’t intended as a step-by-step formula for moving from grief to joy, but they can help you process your experiences and feelings at your own pace and in your own time.
Christopher L. Schilling is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, hospital chaplain, and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.