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The Different Way I'm Handling My Grief This Holiday Season

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Most people have heard that there are five stages of grief, as theorized by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her acclaimed book “On Death and Dying.” Simply stated, she believed that upon the death of a loved one, a survivor would pass through the following:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

While many agree this theory generally captures the phases of emotion that a person in mourning may experience, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s more complicated than that.

This is the most difficult time of year for me at work. Like clockwork, we get to November and my therapy clients start struggling with the upcoming holiday season. The most common issue: missing a loved one who has passed away, and the profound sadness that comes along with not having them with us. What’s supposed to be a joyous season is heavy with grief, and it’s difficult to sit with so many people in pain.

It’s especially difficult when I’m experiencing pain, too. Try as we might, mental health professionals can’t help but be reminded of our own struggles, especially when we are constantly reminded by a topic that’s heavily discussed for two months. I’m not complaining — it’s just the reality I’ve faced each year I’ve been in practice, and it’s hard to figure out a way to avoid letting your own emotions seep in from time to time.

Last year was the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without my grandmother. She had passed away in April at age 88 — not unexpected due to her age, but still a major loss for our entire family. My grandmother was the one who made the gravy every Thanksgiving, and it was my grandparents’ house at the heart of every cherished family Christmas gathering into my early adulthood.

As the holiday season approached and I sat with so many clients in grieving, I willed myself to suppress my own sadness over these first major holidays without her. This was partially in order to function effectively at my job, but was mostly avoidance on my part.

See, it’s much easier to push your feelings down than to acknowledge and work through them. Quite the opposite of what I was counseling my clients to do, but I’m the first to admit I’m terrible at taking my own advice.

I felt some twinges at Thanksgiving when my sister stepped in to make the gravy, and when we pointed out the empty chair where grandma would have been sitting. Christmas was strangely easier, perhaps because of how excited my son and almost 1-year-old niece were about the presents under the tree. We had also purchased matching Christmas onesies for the entire family, my parents included. It was a hilarious bonding moment as we set the timer on my iPhone and attempted a decent group photo in our getups.

I didn’t cry on either holiday, and I remembering feeling proud of myself at the time. Now, I look back and realize just how much I was refusing to make room for the grief, and it would later come to the surface during a difficult setback with my mental health.

When I was meeting with my therapist this summer, we talked about my refusal to fully grieve a number of losses in my life (the most recent being my grandmother’s death). I understand my way of coping is to not cope — a backwards defense mechanism of sorts, to protect myself from emotional distress. I also recognize the ways bottling that grief has led to bigger problems, like the return of my panic attacks after almost 13 years without one.

So, as the famous saying goes, “the only way out is through,” and I started going through the process of grieving my losses. I can’t say I followed the five stages of grief, and I can definitely say I haven’t made my way completely through it all.

I’m not sure that anyone does, by the way: grief is never-ending, in my opinion. It just changes shape and casts a smaller shadow over your life in time.

I’ve also decided I’m going to allow myself to feel any sadness that arises this year, and even give myself permission to cry if I need to. I haven’t been feeling the grief set in just yet, but with less than two weeks until Thanksgiving, I know it’s possibly on the horizon.

I’m also choosing to deal with my grief this holiday season with a heart full of gratitude. 

Not that I’m grateful for the losses I’ve endured — I truly wish no one ever had to lose a loved one. However, I’ve decided I want to remember how thankful I am for my experiences with and resulting memories I have of my grandmother. I would need endless pages to list them all, since I was fortunate enough to have her in my life until I was in my mid-30s. She proudly attended my graduations and was a cherished guest at our wedding; she adored my son and he had such a special bond with his great-grandmother.

This holiday season, I welcome the opportunity to feel it all, the sadness and happiness alike. After all, the holidays are about family, and I’ll keep mine close in my heart even if they’re not seated around the dinner table.

The author would like to dedicate this article in memory of her grandparents, Gerald and Theresa Palmer. 

Getty image by shironosov

Originally published: November 27, 2019
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