Until this year. I know it’s been 24 years, but I’m all grown up (middle age now, in fact), I’ve found my voice, and now there’s this great thing called the Internet where I can post things. And now, you’re going to hear ALL about it.
One of the reasons why dealing with death over the holidays is tough is, naturally, because the entire world is celebrating, and you just don’t feel it. A hole has been ripped in your life and, as I said in my last entry, a date in red on the calendar doesn’t hasten the healing of the heart. I believe it was C.S. Lewis that said death is unnatural because people weren’t created to die, and I believe it. Death is such an aberration to our spirit, and that abnormality is especially evident in a season where we celebrate the birth of our Savior and eternal life. Emotions know no season and if they take a smack then nothing is going to expedite the healing process. Here they parallel the body. Don’t believe me? Burn your hand, break a bone, or sprain something today and see if you’re healed by Christmas.
The reason I sound cynical here is because of the other reasons why death is hard to deal with during the holidays. Yes, the whole world is celebrating, and they don’t want to stop –not for you, or for any pesky little problem like (gasp) death. They want to be happy and have fun and by God, you aren’t going to stop them. I thought perhaps it was my still child-like perspective on the world in 1987, but in the 24 years since then I still hold to the opinion that:
1. People don’t cope with death well, especially during the holidays;
2. The dumbest things are said at visitations and funerals; and
3. People can be incredibly selfish, rude, and insensitive in their desire to create “the perfect holiday” (which we have already acknowledged won’t happen).
I thought it was because people kept telling me to “cheer up” and “be glad the holidays are here to help ease the pain.” I thought it was because people kept telling me to “grow up” and“get over it because it was just a grandparent.” I thought it was because people kept saying “you mother has it worse - don’t you owe it to her to get over it and try to make Christmas good for her?” Yes, people really said these things, without exaggeration. But the problem is that I learned it wasn’t just me when Rick’s grandmother died on December 21, 2000. I warned Rick of the incredible stupidity and insensitivity he was about to experience and lo and behold if he didn’t see I was right within 10 minutes when a lady walked up to us with a huge smile plastered on her face and said “What a wonderful time to go to Heaven! She gets to celebrate Jesus’ birthday with him face to face. But oh, your poor father, this must be awful for him. So, what are you doing to celebrate?”
If looks could kill, the one Rick and I gave that lady would have made her the funeral home’s next customer. I noticed she hurried away and we’ve never seen her again.
I wish I could say I’m embellishing these comments, but I’m not. In fact, I’m fighting a rare urge to name names here so the whole world will know who the igits are. But I’m not going to do it because the point of this entry isn’t to debate right and wrong. It’s to acknowledge that people do die during this joyous time of year and to guide you toward the proper way to help somebody that’s suffering a loss during the holidays. And so, I have offered my experiences to give a few tips on how to best console people that are grieving over the holidays.
I’ve already hit on the first one. Emotional healing knows no season, so please don’t try to push people into celebrating if they don’t feel like it. Not for their sake, or the sake of the kids, or the family, or anybody. My mother and Rick’s father tried to put on that “brave face for the family,” and let me tell you – it didn’t work. Grief was the pink elephant in the room and everybody saw it by Christmas. Not only are you headed for disaster by not allowing them time to grieve, but you risk more damage by your selfish demand that the holidays will go on, come hell or high water. So please, back off. If they don’t want to put up a tree this year, go caroling or attend parties, don’t make them. Back off and give them the space they need. If you feel you absolutely must do something, do it in more practical ways that are not holiday related, like offering to bring them a meal, help them clean the house, or take care of the kids one evening. Believe me, they will appreciate you not force feeding them to a world high on Christmas more than any present under the tree.
Second, please use discernment. Everything that flies through your head doesn’t need to fly out of your mouth, and as the non-grieving party you have a higher obligation to put a lasso on your tongue. This is true always, but it’s absolutely essential at visitations and funerals. This is not the time to be witty, wise, or philosophical. There are people trained for that, so leave it to them: You know, the pastors, priests, rabbi’s, therapists, psychologists, and others trained in the religious or mental health fields. I have no doubt that losing a parent is much worse than losing a grandparent, but that’s an inappropriate thing to say to ANYBODY, especially to a 12 year old that’s confused, hurting, and doesn’t know what to do. Logic doesn’t work in highly emotional situations like this, so don’t go there. In fact, when it comes to funerals then the less you say, the better. Just say “I’m sorry for your loss” and let it go. People in these situations don’t want a dissertation on dealing with grief or a lecture on getting over it. They want people to acknowledge how they feel and have respect for it.
Third, don’t take it personally. People are already stressed out this time of year and that tends to work on nerves. Unfortunately, sorrow and anger are part of the grieving process which can strip nerves raw and increase emotional outbursts. I know it’s awkward if somebody burst into tears when a carol comes on in a store, or shouts insults at the mall Santa, but unfortunately seasonal things that seem benign to most can trigger deep grief responses in those dealing with loss. I know from experience that it can be extremely frustrating to watch the world celebrate when a huge hole has just been ripped in your life, and sometimes the strangest things knock holes in those walls of restraint. Don’t make a scene bigger. Simply try to diffuse the situation as smoothly as possible, remove the person from it, and do your best to control your emotions so you can help them control theirs. They’re weak right now, so give them the gift of being strong until they are healed and able to be strong on their own again.
I have a word for those of you that have recently lost loved ones, or that have lost them this year and are facing your first holiday season without them. Please know that you aren’t alone. There’s nothing wrong with you, and you are going through a natural process. Understand that it will get easier, but it can only get easier if you take the time to go through the grieving process in your own timing. So don’t try to be brave or try to sweep it under the rug because it’s the holidays. Some people don’t get it, but that’s not your problem. They will one day because we all lose loved ones and have to deal with that empty seat at the holiday table eventually. The holidays come around every year so believe me, there will be more chances to “do the holidays” later. It’s ok to take a year off if you just can’t face it this year. It doesn’t make you Scrooge. It makes you a human being – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Finally I’d like to say, for the record, that all the people that said those rude, insensitive things to me in 1987 and to Rick in 2000 deserve a smack. So I’m saying it now, on the INTERNET, to the WHOLE WORLD, on MY WEBSITE right now. Consider this your virtual kick.
Wow, I do believe that’s something like Nana would say.