This is the time of year when I want to crawl into a cave and emerge in July. There is something about the holiday season that is triggering for many whether it is with loss, change or adversity in general. Rationally I know that it's just another day that we attach, and have attached, specific meaning to, so arguably this means we can un-attach that meaning and redefine it in a way that better suits us.
If only it were that simple.
Formerly nicknamed "Elf" I always had my tree and decor up and gifts wrapped by the time Black Friday concluded. But I have struggled with the holidays since Leyden passed away. Thanksgiving reminds me that Leyden never got to wear her heavy duty outdoor gear for our annual football game, nor did I get to see her run around the fields trying to keep up with the high school students. Christmas- a constant reminder I am not Santa. I so vividly remember being seven months pregnant on Christmas and excitedly declaring that this would be my last experience not loading gifts under the tree for our son or daughter. I make it through Christmas only to run into New Years... an annual affirmation that another year passed and Leyden is still not here. Setting resolutions that aren't focused on raising my daughter feels well, meaningless. Right after I catch my breath and begin to recover February hits. Her birthday- and a subsequent four months of reliving each moment. I can literally recite times, stats, surgeries, interventions, moods, smiles, cries and snuggles of every single day through the sound of her last breath.
That cave idea isn't looking so terrible.
I know I am not alone in my grief, my pain and my holiday struggle. So when we carry such loads, how do we navigate through a season that can trigger heartache? How do we learn to not just survive the holidays, but to find healing through them?
Grief is an intense manifestation and expression of our own idiosyncrasies, patterns and emotional processing. So for every single person, even two people grieving the same loss, grieving and healing is going to look different. And to fully honor our own needs, it should.
For me, the following strategies have been helpful in navigating through the heaviness of the holidays:
1- I incorporate Leyden in my own way. Leyden's song was "Three Birds" and although I no longer really purchase Christmas gifts, I have ordered wine glasses with birds engraved on it, quarter zips with them embroidered and prints with her handprint forming a tree, and birds flying above. I visit her tree on Christmas morning and spend some quiet time feeling close to her. I write and reflect on the ways she impacted this world and cultivate chances to feel grateful for my greatest gift- Santa has nothing on Leyden.
2. I Boycott. Yes, that is correct. I consciously choose to boycott. I have yet to put up a tree, decoration or turn on holiday music. Some people interpret this as an indication of a struggle or tell me it is sad. I understand their discomfort and at the same time, I disagree. Sure, it might be sad, but loss is sad and we can't always mask that. Boycotting, for me, is important. With so little I can control- choosing if and when I will embrace this holiday season again is something that I can control. And that feels empowering. And empowering helps heal. I imagine someday I will feel excited about it but right now, I choose to honor where I am at.... that means no music, cookies, trees, bows or decor.
3. I create new traditions. Instead of doing the things I have always done and envisioned having Leyden learn and join, I change my routine. I avoid morning gift openings and go for a quiet run and visit her tree. I hang the "Leyden" ribbon given to us and attend service at the congregation that embraced us, prayed for Leyden and still celebrates her life. I stopped purchasing gifts for my family and instead take everyone out together so we can enjoy each other's company and use the holiday to focus on what really matters- creating memories, growing closer and sharing love. When we take that perspective, I feel like it is a gift to our family from Leyden. One of her many.
*** Consider that for those who have lost someone they shared traditions with, you might find comfort in continuing those or keeping parts of them. Each loss is different, check in with yourself and decide how you want to manage your holidays traditions.***
4. I communicate, a lot. I know that it makes people sad to not have me join in previous traditions or to know that I treat Target like an evil enemy. I make sure to communicate my needs and thank them for supporting me regardless of what it "should" look like. I explain to others who might not understand that loving and supporting me doesn't necessarily mean pushing me to take on more than I feel able to. I express how appreciative I am of invitations that are extended as options without obligation. I remind everyone I care about how much I love them and that my changes in routine are not indicative of any lessened love or value. The last thing I want to do when already feeling empty from grief, is to fail to communicate and in turn put a wedge in the relationships that fill me with the love and strength I rely on to heal.
5. I commit to very little. These few months I find myself feeling like I am trapped in a high pressure cage. I am on edge waiting for the next reminder of my loss or trigger that is going to cause pain. Humans are wired to avoid pain- fight or flight kicks in when we feel it. But when we anticipate feeling it, not knowing when it may come.... we tend to function in a way that carries more anxiety, worry and fear. I can't exactly take this out at work or on people I love, so to balance this higher level of emotional charge, I need to slow down and move more gently. This is NOT in my nature. I call it a comfort zone hack because I tend to be comfy and cozy in busy, planned and scheduled. This change of pace takes a lot of effort- but it is necessary effort. I try to schedule less definitively but always have options. For example, I may talk with friends and family about 3 or 4 different options and then decide what feels best when the holiday(s) arrive. And I always take my own car so that if it doesn't feel right, I can excuse myself and move to plan b, c or d.
Whatever your holiday celebrations (or boycotts) look like, thinking about them and giving yourself permission to choose differently than the "norm", to change your mind at any moment and to serve your needs is important. By design, grief is and should be a very unique experience and process. What works for me may not work for you. Leyden's father and I have very different ways of managing the same loss and pain and by honoring that, we have been able to each navigate our own journey and deepen our respect and understanding of one another. Whatever your needs may be, you deserve to communicate them to the people you love. Remember that we may be wired to avoid pain- but we are not wired to navigate through pain alone.
And if you end up in a cave, that's ok too. Bears are definitely onto something with the whole hibernation thing. Just try to keep it to a day, not a season. We can't take away the pains we have endured but we can remind ourselves that they can co-exist with the beauty in the people and places that fill the days around us. And in fact, those beauties, even when faced painfully, are where we can find meaning, purpose and healing. Even through the holidays.