I don’t do resolutions, except when I make them deliberately stupid, like when I resolved to pay more attention to the Kardashians and ended up binge-watching twelve seasons and buying their cookbook and developing opinions about their lives. Personally, I think the whole show went to hell when Khloe and Lamar split. Why not give the guy a chance? But the reason I don’t do resolutions is they usually involve a behavior change, and if it were important to me to stop eating Cheetos in the bathtub, I would have already stopped. If it’s not important to me, I won’t make a change regardless of what day it is or how many people I told. So no, 2018 is not the year I let go of maladaptive behaviors and thought processes. I’m keeping them all.
Some of you may have experienced a first loss this year, or a sudden loss, and were not sure how to appropriately grieve and remember your loved one. Maybe it was your first Christmas without her, maybe your fourth. Maybe it’s been 45 years.
I have a feeling that however you did it was the right way. Maybe you set a place at the table for him. Maybe you got him a gift, either to be opened or not. Or maybe you removed all traces of him from the room. Perhaps a candle was lit for your mother in your church, or you went to a funeral home’s service of remembrance [Christmas services some funeral homes hold to honor all families served that year]. Maybe you took a walk through her favorite gardens, or maybe you did nothing at all. It’s OK.
Maybe you needed medication. Maybe you spent Christmas drunk and snapping at everyone who tried to comfort you. Maybe you are still like this every Christmas, ten years after the death. It’s OK. A lot of people are.
Sometimes the whole family comes together to share a memory, a story, a Christmas tradition that was dear to your loved one, and it’s a beautiful and meaningful time spent. And sometimes the family can’t go through with it and decides not to. Most likely, you fall on the spectrum of people who react to grief in hundreds of equally normal and appropriate ways. You will do grief how you need to, year after year, because there is no choice.
My first year on the job, I met a man who was at his wife’s grave twice a day. Before work and after work. He’d sit at the gravesite and talk to her. He had been doing this for five years. There was also one grave – two babies who died days apart – and their mother came exactly twice a year to place flowers and then leave. (Later, I would learn they were actually a set of triplets, and the third baby survived.) She didn’t linger or talk, but she was grieving in the correct way for her. I don’t know her or her family; it’s not my loss to deal with. I can’t tell her she “should” be visiting more often any more than I can tell the man he “should” have moved on by now. I don’t know the man’s life at all. Maybe he has a new wife. You can be grateful for any number of things and still mourn what was lost. And maybe, a decade later, he is still crying alone at home and never remarried and never will. Maybe that is what he needs. People are allowed to feel things that make others uncomfortable.
If you gave your son’s clothes to charity, you probably recognized it as something you needed to do for yourself. Likewise if you kept them and still have them and need to sit with them sometimes. Telling a woman when she should “get rid of that stuff” will always be as out of place as telling her when she should have children or what she should be doing with her appearance. Just don’t.
So if your Christmas sucked – if you dreaded the day and spent it in bed or ignoring people or you wanted to get out and be festive but you couldn’t – then you have holiday grieving down. It was the right thing to do. You were not obligated to entertain guests, to cook, to buy gifts. Sometimes you just have to fill up a room or a bedside with anything that may offer some small comfort and stay there.
But maybe your Christmas was great. It doesn’t mean you didn’t grieve well enough, or that you denied an unpleasant reality. Many people are surrounded by support during the holidays. Maybe your loss was felt throughout the community and others gathered with you to share the loss and the hurt.
There is no timeline. If I had to describe what a person may expect, I would say the first few meaningful holidays without the one you lost will be bad days of either all-out wailing or a lingering sense of dread. And then you start having peaceful moments with people who make it go by a little easier. Then the peaceful moments become more frequent and the bad ones become intermittent. This will never happen on the individual’s preferred timetable; the easing up of extreme mental pain will always take longer than we want. You won’t be able to pinpoint the day, but it will happen.
And until it does, stick to what comforts you.