Grief in Good Times Through the Holidays

Originally printed in the South Pasadena Review 12/18/14; for my column, “A Stone’s Throw”

Image from psych central.com
Image from psychcentral.com

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.

Do rest.

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

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Old Book for New Year: Discover Poetry

poetryTo ring in the new year I wanted to celebrate an older book with even older content: “A Poem for Every Day! An Anthology of 180 Poems…” By Susan Moger. There are many similar types of books, but this particular one is for kids in grades 3-5, so it’s perfect for me, a self-proclaimed poetry simpleton. I know, it’s a sad and embarrassing confession for a writer. But there you have it, raw honesty to encourage you to pick up poetry at any age.

Actually, I found this book years ago at a fair, hoping to explore it with my own kids (and the fact that this old lady gets to learn right alongside them, even better!) The book was meant for teachers; but as a parent, “teacher” is simply another hat we wear, so don’t be intimidated by the author’s guide for the intended audience. Rather, be empowered by it.

Last April during National Poetry Month, my boys and I opened this book to enjoy a new burst of words each day. It was not easy — maybe because I chose the time right after school to have “more school.” (Well, it seemed like a good hour at the time.)

“If at first you don’t succeed…” just stop. Take a break. Then try again and again. So for round 2, we will attempt impassioned poetry readings at bedtime. The constant procrastination attempts before sleep should work well for this. And doing a poem a day or every other day will take us well into April, as we join countrymen in celebrating crafty phrases.

As for the book itself, I like how it is divided: poems for patriots; poems about the living world; haiku; poems about people, places and things; poems about poetry and words; poems of beauty and magic; poems for fun. It’s organized so you can skip around, depending how you feel. Some are quite popular, like  “Casey at the Bat” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while others are more obscure, at least to me. But all are a form of expression that can sometimes say profound things in simple ways. It’s a gift to behold.

So in this season, enjoy some good poetry, at any level, from any anthology. And hopefully, maybe quite by surprise, your kids (and you) will discover the magical and transforming power of words — before our eyes retire for the night, surrendering ourselves to rest  and allowing these lovely words to slip into our dreams.

Publisher: Scholastic 2006