Originally printed in the South Pasadena Review 12/18/14; for my column, “A Stone’s Throw”
This is a season of celebration and joy. It’s seen in stores and along Fair Oaks. It’s heard on the radio and in churches. You can smell it from kitchens. We feel it in the air. But for those who have lost a loved one (and now I join this thoughtful bunch with the sudden passing of my father this September) mixed emotions abound.
I don’t pretend to be experienced in grief; this inevitability is still raw. But as I mourn and help my mom in the process as well, we’ve learned much together, stumbled through Thanksgiving, and continue to figure it out as we go.
Mom lives with us for now (2 loud children, a needy dog and patient husband among us.) We decided it’s best for us to be together. The boys have to sleep in the same room, though challenging at times, this has also proven to be good; they actually like it this way, now.
Mom and I are currently going through the seemingly endless “business” of tying-up financial loose ends, memorializing dad’s life with an engraved bench in Griffith Park (his favorite hiking spot), cleaning, and creating memories of his legacy as a poet and a “viewing stone” artist.
Random things make us break down at various times. For mom, she became angry when having to check-off “married,” “single,” or “widowed” on a form or cries when thinking about all the food she didn’t let him eat (cannot win here.) For me, I broke down at the grocery store after seeing a friend from the past. All are examples of just a few of the many unusual times grief has struck.
We fight the dichotomous need to hold in our emotions, so we’re not a blubbering mess at every turn, while at the same time, try to encourage each other to just let it out, to allow the grief to flow naturally.
When I want to cry, I don’t. When I want to hold it in, because it’s just downright embarrassing at times, my face curls up hideously in a last-ditch effort to control the flood about to erupt.
There is, of course, no one “right” way to mourn. There are, however, some good things to keep in mind, whether you are grieving or someone you know is mourning a loss (this may also include beloved pets). Whether or not it’s been a few months or a few decades since the loss, grief rears itself unexpectedly and sometimes so deeply it may seem no one can possibly understand. Experts say it gets better with time. I’m trusting this.
For now, there are days I am numb, emotionless even. Sometimes I am so busy, taking care of everyone else, that I forget mourning. But as a good friend reminded me, I, too, am grieving. When I stay in that space, I realize it’s the pain I’m avoiding. And as I read in grief.com, “Grief is the way out of pain.” So it behooves us to find ways to grieve well.
Here are some dos and don’ts I’ve found helpful or have discovered through research:
Do something for yourself, whatever feeds your soul (even if it’s “fun,” don’t feel guilty, laughter is also a form of medicine). My mom wants to learn how to play the guitar. I write.
Do think about children who are close, they are often “forgotten grievers.” Keeping old traditions during the holidays may serve them well. And come up with some enjoyable new ones, too.
Do things for others. Volunteer at a food bank. Visit those who may be lonely. A month after my father’s passing I made a meal for a new mom and that surprisingly felt healing to serve another.
Do celebrate the season. For me, Christmas is about “Emanuel,” God with us. So my focus here fills me and keeps me grounded.
Don’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right. Allow yourself to be alone and be with people, whatever helps.
Don’t keep feelings locked-up. Talk about your loved one, whether or not emotions follow. Celebrate this season as you mourn and remember treasured memories of your loved one.
Don’t reject help. You may be blessed (and allow blessings to fall on others) in unexpected ways as you stay connected to people. This was definitely true for us in the form of friends giving us meals, to give only one example.
Though there is no magic solution to make the pain go away during the holidays and the “quiet” months that follow, there are ways to press into it and make it a time to celebrate the life of a loved one and how they made you who you are.
For dealing with grief, try one of these resources in South Pasadena: Jessica ChenFeng, PhD, LMFT (626) 817-2188, therapywithmftjess.com; Craig Clark, PhD (626) 403-0734; Jacqueline Woods, LMFT at Pacific Trauma Treatment Center (626) 808-4030, PacificTTC.com. Also, seek counseling and grief support in various houses of faith in the community.
Research credit and online resources: griefnet.org and grief.com