Grief and Joy… Unlikely Pals in this Holiday Season

Grief and Joy… Unlikely Pals in this Holiday Season

The holiday season is among us! Wowzers. That happened so fast. A new year is right around the corner. So many events and gatherings will occur between now and our new beginning.

Recently I was invited to speak with Dr. Jeffery Foxx on the concept of holiday stress and how to manage it. Dr. Foxx has a mini talk show on WKYT during which he invites guests from the medical field to speak about current healthcare themes. He asked me to participate in the show, and not quite knowing what I was getting myself into, I said “Sure!”

*Side note: I am a procrastinator. I do a lot of things at the last minute when the pressure is high and the deadline is nigh. Such is the life of a brain with ADHD.

On my drive over to WKYT from my home in Nicholasville, I had about 40 minutes to pull together some talking points for my segment with Dr. Foxx. I knew it would only be a few minutes long and I was searching my brain for some highlights to hit during the segment. In my search, I thought back to the many holiday gatherings I’ve attended with the many family members and friends I’m blessed to have in my life. I thought about the feelings that arrive at my door in the holiday season. There is comfort, and joy, and togetherness and there is also loss, and sadness, and grief.

You have to understand, I grew up in small town North Carolina. My entire extended family lived in one county. We gathered big and we gathered often. I had no idea what a treasure that whole family time was until I was grown. I finally understood why my parents worked so hard and stressed themselves out to organize and plan these events, to feed people and entertain them, so that we could all be together. We could make memories over meals, share recipes and stories, listen to and laugh with one another.

This holiday season will be my first since my grandfather passed away. He lived a long and miraculously healthy 97 years. When he died his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren had collected lifetimes of many beautiful memories and such fondness for the man he was. This upcoming season, he won’t be at the table. He won’t be in the sitting room. He won’t be in his rocking chair on his front porch, watching the birds with a wad of Beech Nut tucked into his cheek.

Such grief flows in as I consider what it might be like this year, to gather with family in a season of supposed celebration, without my Papa. My grief prompts the question in my mind- How many others are grieving this season? How many others feel loss and sadness and loneliness in a time when the world expects celebration, gratitude, hope, peace? What is it like for us, to see the joy around us and feel a deep sadness within us, and feel the disconnect between what it should be and what it is?

I’m practicing a hard thing this season. I’m practicing holding both things- the gratitude and the grief. The sadness and the joy. The stress and the peace. 

Losing loved ones is both a universal and a deeply personal experience. My hope for us, Dear Grieving Ones, is that we find a way to honor our seemingly contradictory feelings. Can we allow both things simultaneously to take up space in our hearts and our minds? The grief does not negate the gratitude. The sadness does not negate the joy. In the same moment we can feel grief for the memories we didn’t have time to make, and gratitude for the cherished memories we were privileged to collect. In the same moment we can feel sadness about the empty seat at the table, and joy for those who still occupy their seats in our homes and lives.

I plan to ask my family to create a small ritual this holiday season. It wouldn’t feel right to gather together and celebrate without an acknowledgment of the family that has passed on. Maybe we have a quiet moment before we share a meal, to light a candle in remembrance of Papa. Maybe we place a photo of him at our table or near our table. Maybe we share in his favorite holiday food or listen to his favorite holiday music. Small rituals can have big impacts. Our remembrance and honoring of our deceased loved ones helps to soften the sharpness of the grief, juxtaposed with the brightness and warmth of the fuzzy holiday feelings.

I share all of this with you for two purposes.

Firstly- it was cathartic for me to write about what I anticipate for my holiday season in 2023. I anticipate sadness and strangeness. Additionally, I’ll take any opportunity to tell anyone and everyone what a man my Papa was!

Secondly- I believe I’m not alone in my contradictory feelings. We all have pangs of sadness and flights of stress during the holidays. Maybe you are grieving a loved one too. Maybe this is your first holiday without your Papa. If it is, I’m so sorry for your loss, and I’m right there with you. Please take care of yourself by making space for the sadness alongside the joy. Tell the stories around the table, cry together, acknowledge out loud that you miss your loved one and their absence is felt. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, or your family. Consider developing a new mini-ritual to honor and remember your loved one. This season might feel strange, and it might feel sad, but it could also feel merry and bright.