Image description: A bare tree in silhouette against a dark blue and black sky. Image credit: Gerd Altmann (pixabay).
This post was first shared in Version 1 of the Holiday Self-Care Resource. This expanded version is a Patreon reward post for Samantha, who is one of my most enthusiastic supporters and a close friend.
Samantha lost her father, and asked me to write about “the intersection of the Holidays and Loss. The expectation to participate versus honouring grief.”
This topic is so deep, and so difficult, and so important.
We all experience grief and loss at some point in our lives, and we all navigate holiday expectations and experiences following the loss. Although we each feel the loss individually and uniquely, the fact that we will feel loss is universal.
Our culture is not particularly death-affirming. And by “not particularly,” I mean “not at all.” We prefer not to think about death, not to talk about death, not to know about death. I count myself among that majority, and am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of mortality – my own, and that of my loved ones.
When Samantha notes the conflict between participation in holiday traditions and honouring grief, she is highlighting a critical gap in how many of us navigate death and loss. Death is not welcome at the holiday table. Our grief – the full raw intensity of it – is not welcome. We remember our lost community members briefly, and with restraint. We do not wail. We do not sink to the floor in despair. It’s Christmas, for fox sake! We are often encouraged to “think positive,” to remember the good, to focus on the silver linings, and to have faith that time will heal even the deepest wounds. These dismissals of our full grief can be felt as dismissal, erasure, invalidation. They can trigger shame, fear, anger, and loneliness. Are we grieving wrong? Are we wrong to grieve?
This conflict between connection with the living and connection with the dead, and this distancing from connection with our own deeply grieving selves – it hurts. It contributes to the pressure and pain that often accompany the holiday seasons.
And, I suspect it is unnecessary.
If we were able to make our way towards more death-affirming, death-accepting, and emotionally whole holiday traditions, then it would be possible both to participate and to honour our grief. But since we are not there yet, we are left with the same problem that dogs all of self-care – the best solution is collective and not individualized, but the available solution is often a solo venture.
So, how do we honour our grief in the holiday seasons?
How do we navigate the escalating intensity of our grief at just the time when our friends become busier and less available, and our cultural scripts become more constricted?
This becomes even more complex for people who are experiencing grief’s cyclical nature – one year we are okay, the next, or two years later, or five, or ten, the tide comes back in. Grief is often given an expiry date in our culture, and if we cycle back into the depths of it during the holidays, after that expiry date has passed, it can be hard to find space or acceptance for our feelings.
“Time heals all wounds” is an aphorism that comes with a subtext. If time has passed and you are still wounded, what are you doing wrong? Are you picking at the scab? Are you obsessing? Have you failed to “let go”?
This idea of “letting go” is one of our central grief narratives, and it can be intensely hurtful. We often fear letting go because we fear losing the person from our lives entirely. We are supposed to move on. But we often fear moving on, because it feels like a betrayal. And that’s okay. “Letting go” is not the only way to navigate grief.
Other cultural narratives are equally painful. “A big grief is a big love” may be true in many cases, but it puts anyone who has lost someone into a tricky double bind. Grieve big enough to demonstrate your love, but also grieve quietly enough to keep people around you comfortable, and quickly enough to be over it within an acceptable timeframe. Big, but not too big. Visible, but not too visible. Loud, but not too loud. Mention it, but mention it at the right time, in the right way. And then don’t mention it too often after that.
And when it comes to mentioning it, “don’t speak ill of the dead.”
For those of us who are queer or trans or neurodivergent or fat or otherwise non-conforming, whose families may have rejected us or struggled to accept us, how do we speak about the people we’ve lost? People we may have loved deeply, but who may also have wounded us deeply? The fragmentation at the core of so many of our narratives about grief becomes visible here, too.
These narratives contain some truth.
It can be a valuable part of the healing process to “let go” – to honour the transition of our loved one from living to dead, to hold space for that shift, to acknowledge that change.
It can be true that big love leads to big grief, though I challenge the idea that the two are always exactly correlated.
It is true that time heals many wounds, when paired with other healing elements.
And I think that there is value in being intentional about what stories we bring forward about our dead, though I disagree that the rule should be to only share the good. People are light and shadow, high and low. We each live in the grey spaces, and I don’t see how it truly honours our dead to pretend they were perfect. We lose their humanity when we sanctify them in death, I think.
And there are other pressures, other narratives, other assumptions that cause that intersection of the holidays and grief to be so challenging.
How do we grieve our best friend when faced with “just a pet” narratives?
How do we grieve our queer lover who wasn’t out? Or if we aren’t out?
How do we grieve our trans community members when they are being misgendered, when our acknowledgement of their gender is not welcome in the grieving space?
How do we grieve losses in families we have divorced out of?
How do we grieve miscarriages, abortions, and other pregnancy and infant losses that are less socially acceptable? (There is an incredible, queer and gender-inclusive, community-built resource on this topic, available here.)
How do we grieve estranged family?
How do we grieve our abusers, when we still loved them? The idea that we can just cut them out is often good advice, and sometimes possible. But what happens to the grief of those of us who didn’t, or couldn’t, or didn’t want to? What happens to our grief when we havecut them out, and then they die? Are we allowed to grieve then? How? With whom?
How do we grieve a break-up, a divorce, or a loss of friendship?
All of these disenfranchised griefs – grief that is not socially acceptable and therefore hard to express, and hard to find support for – are so overwhelming and isolating. Always. But even more at the holidays.
What is the alternative to these pressures, disenfranchisements, and hurtful narratives that ramp up so intensely at the holidays?
One alternative is to retreat with your grief. If you know that your grief will not be welcomed in certain holiday activities, it is okay to skip them and to be with your grief and with whatever people can come into that with you.
There are costs to this. Especially if a grieving family is split in how to handle the holidays following the loss, or if some members of the family are in a quiet part of the grief cycle and others are in a storm, there can be resentment. If some family members want to come together as a family to find solace and joy, and others want to have quiet and solitude to reflect and process – that’s a recipe for conflict and for feelings of resentment and hurt on both sides.
There aren’t any easy answers.
Communication helps, but communication is hard when we’re grieving. Grief makes everything hard.
Self-awareness helps. Letting yourself see what is happening, holding space for your own grief, knowing that your irritability, your sensitivity, your lack of patience, your lack of appetite – they are all normal, and they are all part of the grieving process. But self-awareness is also hard. Knowing the depth of our grief can be overwhelming. Especiallyif we are past the socially sanctioned expiry date on deep grief.
Compassion helps, both for ourselves and for our communities. But, again, compassion is hard! Self-compassion requires allowing ourselves to be struggling, allowing ourselves to be low, to be sad, to be weak. At a time when we are already more conscious of our mortality than otherwise, more aware of the fragility of our own and everyone else’s lives, this is such a huge ask. And compassion for our communities is also incredibly difficult at these times, when someone else’s form of grief may feel like an affront or an invalidation.
For ourselves, honouring grief might mean journaling about our relationship with the lost person, making art, sitting quietly with our memories, speaking about the relationship, allowing ourselves to cry.
For complicated grief, we may need to speak about the good and the bad, and have a safe and welcoming space for those hard conversations, with someone who won’t shame us for speaking about the bad, for still loving the good, or for grieving.
Equally important, the person we trust with these stories will need to not reject or dismiss the good qualities just because of the bad. Coming into that space requires a willingness to be compassionate and non-judgmental. It’s one of the most loving things we can do for a grieving friend, to hold space for the complex whole of their story.
Grief Coaching and Resources
Grief can be overwhelming, and our culture does not provide many wholehearted narratives. Here are some available resources.
Tiffany Sostar (that’s me!) There are two services I offer that can be helpful with grieving. The first is the backbone of my business – self-care and narrative coaching. I can help you figure out how to take care of yourself through the process.
The second is a more specific thing – If we are dealing with long-term grief, or if we want to feel closer with our lost person again, narrative therapy offers a method called “re-membering conversations” – where we bring a member of our community close again through a guided discussion of the relationship, the cherished memories, and the mutual impact of the relationship on both lives. This can be a cathartic and empowering experience.
Rachel Ricketts of Loss and Found. Rachel is an intuitive grief coach in Vancouver, BC. She is a Black woman with a particular passion for working with people of colour whose experiences of grief are informed by generations of oppression, grief, and trauma. I found her through Black Girl in Om, where her post “On Staying Up: How To Take Inventory of Your Grief and Celebrate Through Your Struggles” really intrigued me. She has a 10-week online course coming up on Jan 21. She also offers one on one support for people who are grieving, or who are supporting someone who’s grieving.
Refuge in Grief. RIG has a wide range of articles and resources on the topic of grief, and it can be a little overwhelming to dive into, but if you have the energy, there’s a lot of good stuff there. This article on helping a friend who is grieving during the holidays is approachable and helpful.
What’s Your Grief. What’s Your Grief is another site with a wide range of information on various grief-related topics.
I also found this Brain Pickings review of Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye really beautiful. I haven’t read the book yet, but I will someday. The quotes pulled here are poignant.
What other grief resources have you found helpful?