Handling joy and grief at the holidays

Christmas is memories. I almost lost it today trying to choose a picture of my mom and me together, so I could make a new Christmas ornament. I found the last “good” picture of us together, from April of this year, about 3 months before she died. All the pictures I took during her last week do not represent who she was. They are private, for me only. And she would kill me if they made it onto a Frasier fir.getimage-aspx

Memories are both joyful and sorrowful, yet they are equally important. The grief process must continue over time–perhaps until time ceases (that’s the hard part). So when our hearts hang heavy, and we close the door on grief to say, “I’ve had enough. I can’t take it anymore,” we halt the process toward joy. We are severing an arm to stop an infection, only to operate less fully. But the memories remain even after the arm is gone. Even a one-armed person will tell you that his brain continues to “use” the lost arm, even in its absence.

Since memories won’t go away, I have a few suggestions for preserving them, for celebrating the loss of the people you miss, especially at Christmas. That sounds like self-inflicted torture, I know. But I think it works to keep the heart mobile.

  1. Enjoy their things. Put them out and use them, but try to avoid creating a shrine. Don’t box them up. I do this all year, but at Christmas, I decorate a tree dedicated to love. It’s full of my mother and grandmother’s ornaments, as well as wedding and baby ones. Looking at it warms my heart. I have out their nativity and so many other things I remember ornamenting my mother and grandmother’s houses at Christmastime.img_4980
  2. Keep a picture or two visible of your happy  memories. Again, avoid the shrine, which creates gloom. There may be a time when you can’t look at their pictures. That’s okay. You can put them away for awhile; just set a date to bring them back out.
  3. Talk about them–recall adventures, quotations, and habits. Play a video if you can. I regret now that I only videoed my children growing up. I should have videoed my mother growing older. I would love to hear her voice right now and watch her funny faces.
  4. Do something that they would love doing with you; perhaps begin a new habit by taking someone with you to do something they loved. As a family, we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and remember my mom. I hear her laugh and see her tears at all the parts where she so predictably laughed and cried. I also make Christmas cookies with her cookie cutters and her recipe. We all gorge on cookies and remember Grandma.
  5. Talk to your missed love ones about your life and how much you appreciate them. My counselor says this is good therapy, so don’t think I’m crazy because I still talk to my mom. I recall all the things I said and all the things I wish I had said but didn’t, and that’s when I must rely on the good memories. I can’t change the past; I can only appreciate it and learn from it. If I give memory too much power, it will destroy the good moments right along with everything else, including my ability to feel them.
  6. Honor them with a charitable gift to something they would approve. This year, since I can’t buy my mom a gift, I’m buying a sewing machine for a woman in poverty, so she can learn a trade and provide for her family. I’m using the Vessels of Mercy gift catalog. My mother taught me to sew when I was in the second grade, and eventually, she stopped sewing me clothes and let me do all of it myself. This is a way I can pass her spirit along, like she passed it on to me.
  7. Your turn. What else can you do to enjoy the holidays while you miss someone? There’s so much more! Write and share your ideas for handling good and bad memories at the holidays (or all year).

Grief and joy hold hands in our hearts. To let go of one is to let go of both.

And what if a scoundrel peppers your good memories? Someone who’s very much alive and continually inflicting pain into your life? I think you still pick out the joys and savor them. You put up with the pang to your heart, but you look back anyway. That’s flexing the arm muscles, circulating the blood, doing therapy on the body parts that would rather shut down. It will keep you from operating with one arm when you could have two.

You must look back in order to live fully alive.

God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. For Jesus Christ our Savior, was born upon Christmas Day. He saved us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray. O, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy! O, tidings of comfort and joy! (English carol, orig. 1760)

Merry Christmas!

2 thoughts on “Handling joy and grief at the holidays

  1. Linda Melin

    Every time I bake Christmas cookies, set a festive holiday dinner table or try to beautifully wrap a gift I remember my Grammy. I hang the ornaments she gave me on our tree. I try to honor her desire to make all things beautiful.

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