The Gift of Holiday Grief

Each year I know more people who are sad during the holidays. Many are mourning lost loved ones. That, and my own holiday grief, have seemed regrettable, wrong. Isn’t sorrow an anomalous emotion that I should strive to move past? Isn’t the midwinter holiday all about finding joy and hope in the darkest days of the year? My answer: Yes … and no.

This morning I read a line from Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a classic story of a terminally ill young vicar who learns the peace and wisdom of the Pacific Northwest tribe he ministers to. It reads: “you suffered with them, and now you are theirs.”

It was like a window opening.

“Now you are theirs.” When I seek comfort and connection, whether it’s through loss or laughter, my holidays are richer, more vibrant. There is nothing wrong about grief during the holidays — it is inevitable, as death is an inevitable part of life. As I (and to some extent my friend group) age, we are bound to miss people we have loved.

But it is not only adults who experience grief at the holidays. One of the worst Christmases I remember from childhood was the one following my grandmother’s death. I was eleven. But I think what made it miserable was not the grief — it was everyone trying so hard to pretend that everything was normal. (Perhaps, ironically, for my sake?) It would have been sad anyway. But perhaps not so painful, had we found a way to cherish the memories and accept the tears?

At non-holiday times, it seems to me, accepting sorrow allows coldness to turn to warmth, sadness to gratitude. And even if it doesn’t, sharing our true feelings is a gift in itself. It’s a gift we shouldn’t be afraid to give and receive during the holidays, too.

I remember my aunt, who lived many years in declining health, saying fretfully, “I wish I wasn’t so much trouble.” I told her, “it’s a privilege to help you.” Both things were true. It was “trouble” to care for someone ill and frail, whose needs might occur at inconvenient times, and demand physical and emotional reserves that ran short. But it was also a privilege to be there with her, to be needed, and to find in myself the ability to help. My willingness to be with her created a bond that was its own source of gladness, even in hard times.

The mistake I have been making about the holidays is thinking they must or should be “the good times,” and that when someone isn’t having a good time, something must be wrong. In fact, holidays, like all other days, are sometimes sad and sometimes joyful, sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking.

Life is bigger than good times. So must be our holidays. For myself — instead of hoping for merely a “happy” New Year — I am wishing for a rich, genuine New Year, and the ability to live it with my whole heart.


  1. Thanks, Ron. One of the things I particularly liked about “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” — that I had forgotten from when I first read it years ago — was that the tribal people’s eyes were often full of sorrow, but also they would brim with laughter. It reminded me that often at memorial services and wakes, people will not only eulogize the deceased, but also tell funny stories about them. Merriment and tears seem to be two sides of the same coin, somehow. If we try to escape the one, we may be missing out on the other, too. But in any case, I’d much rather wish someone a rich and genuine holiday, than burden them with a wish for a “happy” one, when they are not feeling jolly, for whatever reason! This occurred to me in a different context, a few years ago. I recall hearing many times, from my own parents and others, “We just want you to be happy.” Well, darn it, I’m not ALWAYS going to BE happy! What a geis to lay on your kids! LOL! I only just realized I’ve kind of been laying a similar obligation on myself at holiday times.

  2. Thank Virginia! Love the idea of imbracing it all and just not wishing for myself or others ‘a Merry….’ or ‘a Happy…’. I’ll try ‘a rich and genuine new Year’ from now on. ron…

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