When Holidays Hurt, and Holidays Heal

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[dropcap]“R[/dropcap] obin’s mom.  Matt Thelen.  Elizabeth Circo.  Coach Alex.  Too many from COVID19.  Rachel Gernerd years ago.  Riegel’s husband, Tom.  Grams sister Clara.  So many more.  Every year around the holidays, my heart goes out to those who lose those they love the most.  Some days, you might not notice they are gone.

Instagram Post/Blog Post: Holidays Suck 2018

But on the holidays, you don’t have the luxury of that denial.  Even today, I still feel that pain, and amidst genuine wishes that you have a holiday full of joy, sugar and Randy telling Clark to buy something “really nice” for himself–I want to take a moment to talk about why, as I wrote years ago, “Holidays suck.”
And I’m thinking most about you who lost someone this year, as getting through the first holidays can be so hard.

I would, however, like to update the title, as my grief of losing mom nearly 20 years ago has evolved as well, this article feels more appropriately titled, “When Holidays Hurt.”

Because sometimes they do hurt.

And there’s also joy, and gratitude, and hot chocolate and Christmas movies and ski trips.  Well, most years not named COVID19.  But all parts of all holidays don’t suck. Just some of them. 😉

And in rereading this, I’m going to update it again – “When Holidays Hurt, and Holidays Heal.”

Instagram Post: When Holidays Hurt & Holidays Heal

My mother died days before Thanksgiving the year I graduated college, so fast, in 4 months from kidney cancer.  Shocked at the diagnosis, only to be stunned by her death months later.

Having talked and processed, and felt this loss with therapists for 20 years (hell yes I talk to someone about this–someone who basically has said “it’s normal to feel that way” to all of my feelings around this), I’ve come to feel for us, my family (me dad and sis) more and more at that time of her death.  For me, I was pretty numb.  It was so surreal.

One day someone is alive, the next they aren’t around anymore.

From your presence, they are gone. Death, an intellectual concept, seeping into my iced over body, one day, one holiday at a time.  Still not sure I totally “get it.”

In the beginning, one thing that shattered my block of body ice, and got to me like a warm butter knife, touching those painful feelings–the empty chair at the table.  Sitting down for holiday dinner, saying grace, and someone pretty important is missing.  One of the most powerful images of loss felt over our winter gatherings.

A large coping mechanism for me was flat out denial.  A normal part of grief, I’m told.  Grief.  Not a process or word I cared a lot about in the beginning.  Seemed like something for grannies and old people to do.  But starting at age 21, I’ve come to value it more and more.  Let me throw another word out there if you don’t like the often overused word grief–healing.  Losing someone wounds, and often so deep.  Real pain can make us question life: maybe it’s not better to have loved and lost, because loss hurts so damned bad.  Ultimately, grief is about healing.

It took me years to grieve, or heal, and release denial, to fully embrace the reality of loss.  I think part of me was a little hard on myself, impatient at my slow movement through these “stages,” but now, I realized that denial helped me to digest this immense loss, a bit at a time.  To try to swallow it all at once, would have been too much.

Overwhelming was exactly how those moments with the empty chair felt.

The thought that she wasn’t there, and wouldn’t be anymore.  It’s not what I had imagined, nor what I wanted.  I assumed we would be doing this with my children, for generations.  Not fumbling our way through new traditions without her.  The little Larry inner child pouted to say the least, and somewhere deep down, was planted this seed of doubt that holidays were good things, and that to love, means you are going to lose.  At times, some faith in life was lost.  If we’re all going to die anyways, why go through all this?

God, I’m wondering what I would say to you who are going through your first holidays.  I know that pain, and can still feel it.  Fresh, raw, overwhelming at times.  Like a whole holiday season of tears, if you let it flow.  Holidays can hurt, they just can.

In a way, of course, things get better.  But in my experience, you always miss the person.  It always hurts a little that they are gone.  Probably the best things I’ve learned to do is be aware of what’s going on within me, because the holidays still 20 years later stir those feelings of loss, and if I don’t deal with those feelings, they will come up to bite me eventually.  Set aside some time to let it touch you.  Integrate the traditions that your loved one passed on to you, so that they live on.  Honor them.  Include their spirit in the holidays.

Mysterious thing, this life we live.  We live, and we die.

My abstract mind loved these questions of mortality and death when I was in college, as I got a 2nd major in philosophy and theology.  But as I’ve neared middle age (I’m def still young, ish, right?), my body has come more to grapple with this reality of death.

Death is a part of life.  Parting is such sweet sorrow.  Holidays, as life itself, can be bittersweet.  Full of rich warm memories, sprinkled with longing, and loss, and wishing things had turned out differently.

The emotions over losing someone–I’ll speak for mine–the anger, disappointment, the life’s not fair–have watered those seeds that distrust life.  The cynic within.  But then other seeds have been planted.  The look on a child’s face at Christmas morning presents, or the joy listening to Christmas music that overcomes all the pain.  They grow, and grow stronger than the loss.  So that while holidays can hurt, I’ve learned that holidays can also heal.

Giving my daughter the same loving Christmas my mom gave us, feeling that connection to her, in that way, she lives on.  And part of that wound takes meaning, and softens.  Dad won’t live forever, but I’m learning his cooking now, so that his spirit will, in the form of the family dinner, the good family style home cooking.

It might be too early to ask this question, but how can the holidays help you to heal?

More and more, I’m curious about embodying this transformative (and healing) possibility.

And this, I’ve concluded after 20 years of musings (ahem guided by therapy), is our life.  Love, and loss.  Pain and joy.  The good, and the bad.  More and more now, I’ve come to reach past the doubting beliefs in life, to the deeper trust and faith.  Death is a part of life.  Even with goodbyes and empty chairs, life and holidays, are still good.  Somehow, our wounds can heal.

My scientific mind isn’t sure it allows angels or talking to the dead.  But as I’m getting older, my heart and body no longer care.  Believing that someone is still apart of you, and your traditions, and that their spirit lives on–might be a better way to live, even if it doesn’t add up on the scientific spreadsheet.

So for those of you this year with fresh tears, God, I feel your pain.  Not many things worse or to be felt more deeply than losing someone you truly loved.

Your grief will come in time, in its own way.

Make space for it.  Hold on to what you need to to keep going, and let the rest flow through.  In some mysterious way still beyond me, even with death, life is still good.

And while they hurt and suck sometimes, know that holidays, too, can heal.

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About the Author

Dr. Larry Burchett, MD

ER doctor, national media personality, and author, Dr. Larry Burchett’s candor and unique perspective have opened up a broader conversation on what it means to be a modern man.