By, Connie Palmer, Imagine Clinical Training Director
There is so much pressure to be happy in our culture, especially at the holidays. We are supposed to have a Happy Thanksgiving, a “merry little Christmas” or a Happy Hanukah. But grief doesn’t take a holiday.
Grief can make us feel sad, angry, scared, or regretful. We may have times when we feel happy which can make us feel guilty; as if we were betraying the person who died by not feeling bad all the time. We may feel envious of those who haven’t lost what we have. All of these feelings are normal.
Rabbi Earl Grollman says, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity—the price you pay for love.” We especially feel the cost of love during the holidays. As painful as grief can be, there is nothing wrong with us if we are grieving. In fact our feelings of grief may be even stronger at this time of year.
Some of the pressure to have a “happy holiday” comes from well-meaning advice and encouragement from others or from the expectations we have for ourselves. A few years ago, I went to a grief training presented by Dr. Alan Wolfelt. In the class there was a man whose twenty year old son had died just a few months earlier. The class listened as this grieving father shared how friends and family were advising him to get back to playing golf and enjoying his life. Alan said something to the man I will never forget. “I recommend you let yourself have anhedonia.” (Anhedonia is the experience of not being able to experience pleasure or enjoy the things you use to. It is a normal part of the grief.)
Alan was saying that when we are grieving we don’t need to pressure ourselves to enjoy activities or act happy when we aren’t. When we do that, we end up pushing down our feelings of grief which can cause depression and anxiety. When we find safe places and people where we can express our feelings of grief and loss, we will in time be able to experience happiness again.
During the holidays it is especially important to reach out for support. Who are the people who will listen without offering advice? Who are the people who will understand if you need to change plans at the last minute? Who are the people who will let you have all your feelings? Surrounding yourself as much as possible with people like this makes all the difference, especially if you a grieving a recent death.
What if we let ourselves have the bittersweet memories of holidays past and the grief of holidays present? What if we don’t pressure ourselves to be happy or try hard to hold back our tears? This coming holiday season, may we give ourselves (and others) the gift of having all of our feelings.