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Light at the End: Managing Grief through the Holidays

Christmas decorations, a wreath, lights, and stockings, decorate a fireplace.
 

The dawning of the New Year brings with it more than just a change in numbers; it brings a promise of longer and warmer days that contrast with the early arrival of night in wintertime. This is why our winter holidays celebrate light and swirl on the calendar around the winter solstice near the end of December. Every candle and every light that twinkles in windows and along streets are meant to give us hope that life will continue and will be good again.

As difficult as it is for people experiencing grief to feel comforted by the holidays when everyone is gathering around friends and family they have not lost, it may be soothing to meditate on the tiny lights that speckle our homes and towns during the winter, and consider what they represent. Though they may not appear cheery or beautiful when seen through the eyes of grief, focus on the twinkling lights as a spark of hope for feeling better.

Contemplating a time when we don’t ache so acutely or feel so impossibly broken takes patience and practice. It requires focusing not on the pain, which feels inescapable, but on everything but the pain. It is like dreaming of a warm, sandy beach in summer, which will eventually be your destination, while in the middle of a cold winter. For example, instead of waking up, forgetting someone is no longer with you, and hiding under the covers when you remember, what could your morning wake-up look like? What would you think, how would you feel, what would you do differently if you weren’t confronted with your grief upon waking?

Similarly, rather than dwelling on every aspect you miss about a person who has died, how would it feel to remember all the gifts and joy that person brought into your life? Again, what would you think, how would you feel, and what would you do differently to embrace those better days?

Consider your life, once the rawness of your pain has quieted. At that point, maybe the pain will still surprise you from time to time or perhaps it will be erased by a scene in a movie, a random phrase, a fragment of a song, or a scent. It no longer dazes you then or makes you feel as if someone has punched you in the stomach. Meditate on the time when your grief will be a gentler companion, rather than an unwelcome house guest. Once again, how would you feel differently? What thoughts would you think? What actions would you take?

Meditate this New Year on the above feelings, thoughts, and actions. Write them  if that helps, and keep them in a journal or some other private place. Note feelings, thoughts, and actions that arise in this meditation that are happening in the present, even just a little.

The smallest candle flame dispels darkness. Your hope and ability to imagine a time when your grief will hurt less, is as bright as any Christmas light or Hanukkah candle. It shines and invites others to shine with you, even in what feels like the longest night of your lives. Tomorrow and the day after, minute by minute, the days get longer and the nights get shorter. Summer is as sure as winter.

© Copyright 2012 by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Cruz, CA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Jillian January 11th, 2012 at 4:18 PM #1

    There is always something better yet to come, yes? That proverbial thought that there IS light at the end of the tunnel has gotten me through many dark and depressing times. But it is not always so easy to see things in such a positive light. It is hard to find that light within all of that sadness sometimes, and it is hard to do it alone.

  • Ivan Chan January 11th, 2012 at 10:23 PM #2

    Jillian,

    Yes. Absolutely true. It is during those times that it helps to be with others who can see the light you struggle to see. It’s comforting to have guides along the way, or even the voice outside of the dark forest that calls back to you.

  • ZANE January 12th, 2012 at 5:33 PM #3

    It IS funny how one small little thing can start taking you back down memory lane in an instant. And sometimes it is totally off the wall and unrelated to anything that you and your lost soul may have done together but something reminds you and the hurt is there all over again.
    But I have come to try to embrace those opportunities to remember and to love and instead of looking at them as unwanted I look at them as another beautiful way to remember what I was so lucky to have once had.

  • Lanny January 12th, 2012 at 11:15 PM #4

    “ability to imagine a time when your grief will hurt less”

    This,for me,has to be the toughest part.When I’m happy its easy to forget sadness.When I’m feeling neutral I dread sadness and when i’m sad I can’t seem to get over the occupying thought and think of good things,its like a mental block.What do I do?

  • Ivan Chan January 17th, 2012 at 4:36 PM #5

    @ZANE Thank you for sharing your thoughts, much appreciated!

    @Lanny There are a variety of ways to ride these waves of emotion, from happy to neutral to sad. I would suggest looking at how you do things to take your mind off of your grief, and maybe give you a bit of happiness and time in the restorative phase of grief (as compared to the loss phase of grief; in restoration, we can feel some joy, contentment, normality and in loss, we feel sadness, yearning, etc.). This will help you find activities and thoughts native to you, but in your focus on these sorts of activities, you will begin to train your focus away from focusing or dwelling on the loss (which seems to be happening, given that even in neutral, you’re tending to head in the direction of sadness or dread heading in that direction).

    As for feeling sad and not feeling like you can’t get over the occupying thoughts, I would say, let yourself be. A lesson from mindfulness-based approaches suggest thinking of your mind like an open sky, and the emotions and moods we feel as weather passing through it. When you feel sad, think of it as a storm going through you–you know the storm won’t last forever, even though it feels like it could. Just let yourself be, let it rain, and the sunshine will inevitably appear again. Be with patient friends, and seek support if it helps you to bear these storms.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Dan Bolton January 26th, 2012 at 4:57 AM #6

    Great article Ivan. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the eye of the storm of grief like that, but it explains it perfectly. I have a friend who is going through this now and I forwarded it to her… I think a reminder that this is a normal human process and highlighting the experiences of grief will help her a lot. Thanks Ivan!

  • Ivan Chan February 26th, 2012 at 6:17 PM #7

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad the article was helpful enough to share with a friend!

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Londiwe December 24th, 2013 at 2:39 PM #8

    My brother was killed 5 months ago and I am beside myself with grief.At the beginning I literally had physical chest pains through a broken heart.being Christmas tomorrow has completely shattered me.I am not celebrating an I want to be left alone to grieve and I don’t want anyone to give me pep talk and positivity.I just want to grieve for him .

  • Ivan Chan December 25th, 2013 at 6:25 PM #9

    Dear Londiwe,

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Please accept my condolences.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Ali December 26th, 2013 at 9:02 AM #10

    I recently heard a pastor say that although he has peace that his father is in heaven, every December around this time, he feels a twinge of pain/loss. I think he just wanted people to know he’s human, not just a man of faith and sometimes we all need time and space to grieve and heal. Sorry to hear of your loss Londiwe.

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