Christina Hoppin, MS, LCPC
Warning! This is not a happy feel-good article about the wonderful holiday season or tips on how to survive the holiday season if you are grieving. I am interested in taking this opportunity to support those who are grieving, whether you are grieving a person, an opportunity lost, something forced upon you, someone/thing you never had that you wanted, someone who hurt you, something that hurt you, not getting to see family this time of year because of health scares, or having to see family this time of year. I am here to validate your experiences around the holidays. The list of reasons to grieve could go on. As with all mammals, we cannot escape loss and grief. Grief does not discriminate; everyone experiences it but no two people experience it in quite the same way.
Around the holidays, grief can be especially hard. We see pictures on social media of families who seem so happy. We watch TV commercials that convey wonderful feelings as families gather. We see commercials that include no physical or mental disabilities or chronic pain, or deep hurt between family members, or families fighting amongst themselves, or a family member/pet missing from the festivities, or painful memories triggered by holiday traditions.
While there is nothing wrong with the fact that these images are some people’s realities, they do not represent what the holidays feel like for everyone. The lack of reality we are exposed to this time of year can isolate us even more from what we are led to believe is the “norm.” The unveiling of green, red, and white and twinkling lights sometimes brings grief even closer - grief over a dad who loved Christmas and died right before, grief over the drained bank account and the inability to give during the “giving season,” grief over not being able to afford to travel, grief over being in a family who cannot get along or a family who hurts each other, grief over watching loved ones grieve, knowing that the holidays, family gatherings, and life in general will never be the same, grief over the acknowledgment that the holidays will forever be tainted by painful past experiences.
Feeling joy around the holidays is not an impossible endeavor, and should not be treated as such, but to fully experience joy, we must acknowledge loss and grief. “Toxic positivity” is more than just an idea. It is an experience that invalidates the very depths of the soul and what it means to be human and real. This kind of positivity isolates and invalidates people who suffer. Toxic Positivity is always looking on the bright side, disallowing the experience or expression of negative emotion. In grief and loss, toxic positivity may sound like, “It was meant to be; don’t fret over it.” Or “He lived a happy 77 years; you shouldn’t be sad.” Or “Just think of it this way: at least she’s not in pain anymore.” Don’t get me wrong. I try to stay positive. I have made these very statements, trying to find a way to make sense of a loss, to find a way to cope with it, to try to help others who are grieving. But by refusing to fully acknowledge and feel the
impact of loss and grief, we are avoiding, denying, or suppressing our very humanness. We are gaslighting ourselves.
Our emotions reflect our values. It is honorable to experience negative emotions. Negative emotions reflect that we lost something or someone we dared to value. Negative emotions reflect that we had the courage to put time and energy into someone/something, to say “I’m all in'' despite knowing somewhere deep in our being the suffering we would experience once the precious treasure was gone. Grief is not anti-happiness. True happiness is living a life that is in alignment with our values. If we do not grieve what we valued and lost, we cannot be truly happy. And if, from a place of fear, we do not “go all in” aligning with our values and choosing to feel deeply, we cannot be truly happy.
I am not suggesting that we should wallow in grief, refusing to find anything to celebrate, expressing anger toward those who do. We need to let others live out their values fully. We need to remember that just because someone is living fully in the moment does not mean they are not grieving. Everyone is grieving something or someone. Remember that this is a very difficult time for many. The reminders of the holiday season are all around us. Some of those reminders lead to positive memories, joy, and wonder. Some of them lead to painful memories and realizations.
Allow folks to fully celebrate, to align with their values. Allow folks to grieve what/who they have lost without being critical of them. Remember those grieving by taking moments to be thankful for what/who you have. Be willing to sit with someone silently while he/she cries. Remember that there may be pain behind the cheerful smile. Invite someone who is grieving to join you and show understanding and empathy if he/she declines. Those grieving do not want to take away anyone’s else’s happiness; they are valuing what/who was once part of their own. That takes courage.