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When the Holidays Are Marred by Loss and Complex Grief

Holidays are usually seen as a happy time, when friends and family get together to celebrate. They are a time filled with the warm glow of decorations, delicious foods to fill our stomachs and wonderful memories in the making with the people we love. 

But sometimes everything is not that simple. When you lose someone you hold dear during the holidays, it creates a dark cloud that looms over the entire celebration, making it harder to enjoy it as you otherwise would.

Loss is hard any time of the year. But a loss during the holidays can be especially painful because everyone else expects you to be happy during the holidays. It is hard to celebrate anything when you don’t feel festive inside. It can feel near-impossible to smile when all you want to do is cry. It is hard to be around others who are happy and festive when you feel anything but, leaving you to wonder if it is just better to stay home and not ruin anyone else’s time.

Holidays are often rooted in nostalgia. Current celebrations bring back memories of other times, better times, when your loved ones were still there to celebrate with you. The sights, sounds, tastes and scents alone can make their absence even more glaring and jarring. What once were joyful recollections you shared together of other years become gut punches that leave you fighting back tears.

It can be doubly hard when you carry conflicting feelings about the person you lost. People often say that you should never speak ill of the dead, disregarding the fact that rarely in life is anything solely black or white, good or bad. The vast majority of relationships in our life exist somewhere within the realm of grays, where they are not one or the other but rather a complex combination of both. When your grief is complex, it makes mourning that much more difficult. 

My mother passed away 10 years ago Thanksgiving day. 

All my childhood holiday memories revolve primarily around my mother. She was the cook, the baker, the decorator, the present-wrapper. The holidays were largely constructed and orchestrated by her two hands. Almost every holiday tradition I’ve carried with me throughout my life originates with her. There is not a single major holiday I celebrate that does not have her fingerprints all over it.

She was my mother. She taught me to cook and bake, to sew, knit, embroider, darn and craft. She implanted in me my stubborn will to keep fighting and my love for the holidays as a whole. She is a big part of the person I am today. 

She was also one of my primary abusers throughout my childhood, physically, verbally and mentally. She is one of the reasons I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. She is proof that very few things exist simply as black or white. 

She is my mother. I love her as every little girl loves her mother. And at the same time I hate her. I love her for all that she has taught and given me, and I hate her for all that she’s put me through. I miss her with every fiber of my being and at the same time I could never forgive her for the darkness she put over the holidays for me. 

To better help you understand our relationship, I feel it is important to divulge a little background. Growing up, my mother was very abusive. She was struggling with often untreated, always undertreated bipolar disorder with frequent bouts of rage and I was her primary target. Our entire house was a war zone where the only way to be heard was to yell louder than the next person, and the only way to shut someone up was to lash out with the meanest, cruelest thing you could think of. After over 20 years of combat, my father walked out on our family shortly before I turned 16. My mother retaliated by driving to his work and shooting him twice. She spent the next few years bouncing between jail and mental institutions until it was ultimately pleaded out. But the damage had already been done and my life had been changed forever. 

Her actions that day made it very clear to me exactly what she was capable of doing during her bouts of rage. Yet she still refused to seek help, frequently breaking down into tears or exploding with anger with no prior warning at the drop of a dime. For years, I watched in fear for my own life and the lives of my children until I finally admitted to myself that I did not feel safe. My mother and I had been estranged for a couple years when she passed away.

My mother’s death was officially listed as an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. My mother suffered from a lot of maladies and had medicine for all of them. She took dozens of different medications over the course of the day. Presumably, she had taken her medication for the day, forgotten, taken them again, forgotten and repeated this pattern multiple times before succumbing to an overdose.

I do not believe it was an accident. My mother had always been meticulous with her medication, separating it into containers designating not only days of the week, but times of the day, as well, so that she never missed a dose. 

I believe she killed herself that Thanksgiving morning 10 years ago and that, in the process, she robbed my holidays from me. 

Every year now when the holidays roll around, I struggle to enjoy them. My entire holiday season is marred by her loss.

I love her. Everything I do during the holidays comes directly from her. Yet she also hurt me worse than any other person ever has and made me feel largely unsafe in this world. She wasn’t all bad. I miss her. I feel guilty for not being there when she died. There’s an emptiness in my heart that nothing seems to fill, yet I also carry so much anger towards her. From Thanksgiving through New Years, my emotions are continuously all over the place, repeatedly being pulled one way then the other. I want to be happy, be festive, to enjoy the holidays with my family, but it’s a constant struggle.

It’s become a matter of taking everything one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. Allowing myself to feel everything that I am feeling because all my feelings are valid. And accepting that sometimes I’m just not in the right mindset and I need to pull back, regroup and recharge. I have learned to be gentle with myself. I do what I can when I can, and forgive myself for the things I am just not able to do during the holidays. I do my best to live in the moment and embrace the joy, but I don’t pretend that the darkness isn’t still lurking in the shadows, as well. It isn’t easy, but it is better to acknowledge and face all of my feelings, good and bad, than to shove them down deep inside and pretend they aren’t there. I celebrate when I can and step away when I cannot. 

After all, none of us has to be festive all of the time — especially when we are not feeling it.

Getty image via Everste