Dealing with grief during the holidays

A few days ago, I stumbled upon a friend's Facebook post that caught my eye because of the happy mother-and-daughter photo.

Under it, my friend had written: "Missing the two most loved and influential women in my life, my sister and my mother. It's my first Christmas without them both. I am trying to find the joy in the season but it would be a lie to say I am not struggling.... I know I'll make it, but it's harder than I thought."

I get what he's talking about.

This month, I opened up my box of Christmas ornaments to decorate the tree.

Among them, there were a "chocolate" cupcake and two delicious "candy canes" given to me by my mother long ago. I recalled her delight in seeing my joy in receiving each one.

But mum died early last year, followed shortly by my dad.

Last Christmas was the first holiday without them and I felt empty.

Despite their sometimes vexing qualities, my parents had always been my "true north". And their deaths seemed to open up a box that held all previous losses.

Now close to two years after they died, it's still a lonely place to inhabit.

I told my psychotherapist not long ago: "I feel like I'm the sole person on the planet to feel this way - even though I know that's not true."

"No, you're not," he responded and then asked, "Are you talking with your friends about how you feel?"

My answer: "I'm trying, but that's hard for me."

His comment pushed me to look and listen to how others were dealing with their losses.

I quickly found my friend Eva posting about her husband who died unexpectedly just a month ago, leaving her a widow and her young son fatherless.

On their first Hanukkah without Terry, Eva wrote: "I'm trying to make new memories and new traditions in the midst of the hardest holiday season."

Jill, a long-time neighbour of my parents, also posted about her anguish: "I just lost my brother (who) died two days ago. I don't know what to do."

Once I paid attention, I saw my therapist was right - others were experiencing holiday sadness.

Assuming that like me, others may have a hard time talking about these issues, I've been reaching out with messages and phone calls, which has helped me open up too.

"You're not making friends sad by reminding them of the death of someone they cared about," a neighbour posted on Facebook a couple weeks ago. "Rather, you're reminding them that you remembered that they lived. And that is a great, great gift."

All of these posts and conversations helped me to see the universality of loss.

As I sat at my desk the other day, my mind wandered back to the experience of a meditation retreat I'd attended a few weeks after my mother died.

The leader had asked us - more than 200 souls - to share our biggest fear by scribbling it down on a piece of paper. To a person, the answer was "loss" in its many hues - of a spouse, our health, a job, life. With that common revelation, I felt a sense of connection to my fellow pilgrims in the cavernous meditation room and I took that lesson home with me.

After the retreat, I tried to allay my grief over my parents' deaths by being more open about my feelings.

Not incessantly, but when friends asked how I was, I took their concern as genuine and did not just answer: "Fine."

Sometimes, I patched together words and phrases that did not add up to a coherent sentence.

Other times, I teared up or cried. At times, I posted about difficult moments in the wake of their deaths, which helped me and gave others permission to reach out.

But as time went by, I retreated into myself, which is why my therapist again urged me to open up more to make those connections.

I also listened to my friends' advice about how to take care of myself, which included a smorgasbord of ideas: don't drink, get regular sleep, take up meditation, light candles in memory of those you love, start new holiday traditions and, yes, give and take hugs and hand squeezes.

This holiday season, I'm also trying something new, borrowed from novelist Barbara Kingsolver's advice about how to re-find joy: "In my own worst seasons, I've come back from the colourless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again."

After decorating the tree, I sat in my living room, looking at it and its old-fashioned, multicoloured lights.

With Kingsolver's words in mind, I focused on the "chocolate" cupcake and "candy cane" ornaments my mum had given me. They are shiny, perfect and delicious. And it turns out each one is full of good memory and joy.

To see light, I had to look for it. And there it was - no doubt, all along.


•The writer is an award-winning journalist and author.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 30, 2018, with the headline 'Dealing with grief during the holidays'. Print Edition | Subscribe