Grief and the Holidays

Choose the way things might be 

There is something about the “New Year” that excites diverse and interesting emotions and expectations in most of us, even when we’re grieving a transition or loss.  The New Year comes right after the season of holidays of mostly religious origin, prompting concern with and discussion about what we have, what we have lost, and what we wish might be different. 

All around us are solemn attitudes as well as joys associated with anticipation of “better times ahead” that are strongly expressed at this time of the year.  And we find ourselves caught up in wishful thinking and the fantasy that maybe the loss did not really occur, or maybe it’s reversible.

Quite possibly the most important aspect of the human condition is that we become attached to other people.  The natural result of the loss of these people (through death, divorce, job loss, relationship endings) in our lives is grief, regret or sadness, and the wish that somehow our lot had been different.  The British essayist William Hazlitt said that humans are the only creatures that laugh and cry, because we are the only ones that can understand the difference between the way things are and the way they might be.  At this time of the year, when we celebrate both the solemnity of life and the prospect of renewal, Hazlitt’s wise observation becomes ever more poignant.

So what is our prospect for renewal, for choosing the way things might be?  Sarah Morris wrote in Grief and How to Live with It:  “You have grieved and so have come through a deep experience, not an experience that you wanted, but one that has created in you a new self.”  Nietzsche said “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  A great stress such as grief forces growth.  Growth of what?  Greater personal adequacy, greater wholeness.

Much as we wish to avoid this growth by avoiding this loss, we have no choice in the circumstance that forced it on us.  Where we do have a choice is in the way we meet this painful circumstance, either by succumbing to illness, depression and possibly our own death, or by investing in a painful growth that gives us a new beginning, and which consequently gives a very special meaning to the loss.

An old European custom at this time of renewal is looking at the New Year in terms of: “What one does on this day, one will do for the rest of the year.”  By committing to embracing our grief and the pain that accompanies it, we can use our pain to help us reflect on our lives.  This will naturally lead us to re-evaluate priorities, goals, values, commitments and relationships.  And from here, we can begin the painful task of self-renewal. 

At this time in our lives, it occurs to me that each of us has a precious inner well from which we can pump our reserves of strength when we need them most.  When our spirits are thirsty for dreams, courage, optimism, or hope we can tap that well deep inside our being to find what we need to accomplish our goals and make our dearest dreams come true.  As we face challenges and difficult journeys, we have faith that our well will never run dry if we take care of this priceless resource.

And we have the potential to keep that well pure by sometimes letting it overflow, whether it is with appreciation for moments of our aliveness, with specialness and beauty for all we see, feel, and hear, or with tenderness and love for family, friends, community, the world, and ourselves.  Especially for ourselves.

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