November 18th, 2003, by Russell Friedman
The holidays are approaching. A joyous time. A festive time. A time when families and friends celebrate the passage of another year and the coming of a new year. But not everyone will feel like celebrating.
If this is the first year since the death of a loved one or a divorce, the holidays may be difficult. Since time does not heal emotional wounds, subsequent holiday times may be painful and awkward. Even surrounded by family and friends, grievers may feel isolated, alone, and as if no one understands.
As we move beyond Thanksgiving to Christmas, Chanukah and New Year’s Day, and a review of the year gone by, we are reminded of the war in Iraq and the continued unrest in the Middle East, as well as the ongoing threats of terrorism on our shores. We will share a collective sadness about the losses that have affected all the people whose lives have been impacted by the events that have changed our world.
How Grief Feels
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. It is marked by conflicting emotions that result from the change in a familiar pattern of behavior. But from the standpoint of the grieving person, this is how grief may feel. Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who has always been there, only to find when we need them one more time, they are no longer there.
Adapting to the absence of a loved one is difficult enough. But the first holiday season, with its constant reminders of holiday joy and tradition, can be especially painful. At the Grief Recovery Institute we’ve talked with thousands of people who’ve told us they wished they could jump from late October right to mid-January. We’ve heard the same sentiment from people enduring their first holiday season following a divorce.
It’s normal to worry that you won’t be able to handle the pain of that first holiday season, whether the missing loved one is a spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, or child. You may even think you’d rather skip holiday gatherings. Those feelings and fears are not illogical or irrational. They represent a normal, healthy range of emotions about painful loss and our society’s limited ability to talk openly and honestly about grief.
A Taboo Subject
We all experience losses and we all grieve. Yet, grief is one of the most off-limits topics for discussion in our society. It seems strange that one of the experiences we are all going to have, is the one experience we are ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to talk about. Even more troubling is all the misinformation passed on about grief.
We have been taught to believe that time heals all wounds. So people will say, “It just takes time.” The griever assumes the advice to be correct, and waits while time goes by. But time is neutral and does nothing but pass.
People also say, “You have to be strong for the children” [or other family members]. So we pass that on to grievers, who dutifully act strong for the kids, while burying their own feelings deeper and deeper. Worse, while acting strong for the children, they demonstrate “not feeling,” which teaches the child to hide his or her feelings also.
We have been socialized to believe that intellectual remarks will help with emotional conflict. So grievers are told, “Don’t feel bad, he led such a full life.” Maybe he did. But the griever is in emotional turmoil, and that comment, which may be intellectually accurate is not emotionally helpful.
None of the pat remarks identified above help the griever take those correct and necessary steps. Rather, the griever is led down a path that leads to more isolation and loneliness.
What Grievers Want
Several years ago we conducted a survey that asked: “What is the best way to act around someone who has just experienced the death of a loved one?” From the multiple choice answers, 98 percent of the respondents chose: “Act as if nothing had happened.”
We also surveyed those who had experienced the death of a loved in the past five years. We asked them: “In the weeks and months immediately following the death of your loved one, what did you most want and need to do?” Ninety-four percent responded, “Talk about what happened and my relationship with the person who died.”
This holiday season, there will be plenty of hurting people who, given the opportunity, will want to talk about someone they miss. You will be a most cherished friend or family member if the grieving person feels safe enough to talk to you about what is so foremost on his mind and in his heart. If the person doesn’t want to talk about it, don’t be offended.
A Safe Start
At the very least, we suggest that you bring up the topic, and allow them to decide if they want to talk about it. If you’re thinking that it is an awkward question and you don’t know how to ask it, we agree with you. So, here’s a simple phrase which allows the griever to respond or not as they see fit, but is not an interrogation or a command that they must talk about the loss. “I heard about the death in your family…I can’t imagine what this has been like for you.”
If you look at that phrase you’ll notice that it is actually a statement, but the use of the word imagine invites an answer without ever asking a probing question. Interestingly, over the years, we have found the word imagine to be the single most open-ended emotional word in the English language. It implies that whatever the griever says will be acceptable. It implies that whatever the griever says will not be judged or criticized. Those are very important safeguards for the griever, who is hyper-aware of any comments or questions which imply that he is wrong or defective for having the emotions associated with loss.
Just use your own memory and experience to recall how important it was to feel safe when your heart had been affected by a painful loss. Many of you may remember having felt hurt by people who were really very close to you when they said things that didn’t feel right, or equally, when they avoided the topic, and left you feeling very confused.
If a friend gets a new sports car, we wouldn’t dream of not asking all about it. We know they really want to tell us all about it. We must adopt a parallel notion when something sad or upsetting has happened. We know, in many cases, they really want to talk about it.
If people don’t feel safe to talk, they may find other ways to soothe themselves. That could include alcohol, drugs, and food – something in plentiful supply at holiday time, and which may have negative or disastrous consequences.
Take A Chance
Communication has its risks. Bringing up a loss – yours or someone else’s – may not be welcomed. Good taste and timing are important. For instance, we’re not suggesting that just as grandpa starts to carve the turkey, you blurt out, “How have you been since grandma died?”
However, from personal experience, we can tell you that it would not make any sense not to mention someone very important to us. Russell’s personal story illustrates this idea. “My mother died ten years ago on the day before Thanksgiving, and that holiday hasn’t been the same for me since. But I always take the opportunity to toast my Mom and say how much I miss her. Invariably, the others at the table start talking about people they miss. The stories and the memories they evoke are filled with laughter and tears.”
The ability to communicate our emotions openly and clearly, happy or sad, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of being human. It’s less human to exclude from discussion those people who have been important in our lives.
Being afraid of sad feelings can deprive us of the treasure trove of memories attached to relationships with people who have died. Overcoming this fear, especially at holiday time, allows us to claim the full memory of the person we’re missing. People are surprised to discover that even though there may be some sadness, there may be plenty of joy as well.
Recovery from loss is achieved by a series of small and correct choices made by the griever.