Unhappy Holidays: Personal Pain at the Most Wonderful Time of Year

When people ask me about my Christmas plans, I usually shrug it off and say something to the extent of ‘we don’t really celebrate Christmas’. I’ve been asked if that is a religious choice, financial choice, and a variety of other personal and prying questions in search of clarity from my unusual response. Depending on the audience I’ll respond with what feels appropriate to quell their judgement or concern, always trying to move on as quick a possible.

The truth is, it’s a painful time.

The holiday season can bring old pain back to the surface in the blink of an eye and our cultural focus on family reopens old wounds instantly. For me, one of the biggest factors in my aversion to the holidays is grief. While my losses didn’t happen on or during the holidays, this time of year is when the gap feels greatest and I am most adrift in my emotions. Couple this with some seasonal depression and you’ve got a recipe for a difficult season.

2000

When my maternal grandmother died in the summer of 2000, it was an experience difficult to describe. I remember wanting to hold her hand in the casket, not sitting with my parents and brother during the funeral service (I hid in the back), and listening to my mother wail in a way I had never heard from any person prior. Being 15 years old, I knew enough to understand what was happening but could not entirely process the situation or experiences.

When that first Christmas rolled around a few months later, my mother wasn’t exactly feeling the holiday spirit. Putting up the tree and decorating was something my grandmother had always done with us, and it’s never been quite the same. That first year we still got a tree but I cannot recall decorating it. I remember sitting on the couch, my mom attempting to unpack decorations, and trying to ignore her, not recognizing her own pain in those moments. My aloof defiance was likely perceived as teenager stuff and I was not in a place to engage. The holiday came and went, celebrated at home with my parents and brother, and when I try to remember it, it’s just a fuzzy sadness.

2010

Let’s jump to 2010. I’m newly married, living with my husband and our rabbit, and we put up a tree together and have a ton of lights on our porch. Seriously, you could have seen it from space. I ordered a handmade ornament from Etsy marking our first Christmas together and I sub/unconsciously try to start new traditions. We spend Christmas eve with his family, Christmas day with my family, and in between, exchange gifts at midnight. There is still a bitter-sweet undertone I can’t shake.

In 2 years we’ll move into a much smaller city apartment with no room for tree or decorations. Our tree is duct taped into it’s box and the tub of decorations stay in the basement. We hang a short string of lights across some branches in a window box, which is beautiful, but just not the same. We still have never put up the tree or decorations again.

2015

Let’s fast forward to 2015. My father is terminally ill with ALS and even though no one will say it, we know this is the last holiday with him. The weather is downright balmy and we spend some time out on the porch taking in as much fresh air as possible, trying to let the emotions be carried away in the breeze. We try to feed him small bites of Christmas dinner but all watch as he gags and coughs. He hates that we’re watching this, we hate it too. My husband aids in toileting him to give my mother a physical break, my brother sequesters himself for some respite, I am uncomfortable in knowing how to engage.

2015 is also the first year we do not have contact with my husband’s family. Suffice to say, this is a personal choice my husband has made and I will honor that.

I feel isolated, alone, unsure of what will be next and when the phone call of my fathers inevitable death will come. That would be in March, the day after my birthday.

2016

In 2016, Netflix release a revival of the popular show Gilmore Girls in the form of 4 modern ‘where are they now’ episodes. As a family that adores the original show, the now 4 of us (myself, husband, mother, and brother) settle in to binge the 4 2-hour episodes over Thanksgiving weekend. The show opens with the father character (Richard Gilmore) having died and the family navigating that transition. To say watching this was ‘too soon’ for us is a damn understatement. I sit stoic on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, trying not to make noise or flinch as the tears roll down my face. No one says anything.

I don’t remember Christmas from this year. I know it happened, but I can’t recall it.

2019

Over the past few years I just can’t seem to focus during this season and I don’t really want to. My default avoidance kicks in and I do the bare minimum to get by. No big celebrations, no marathon shopping sprees, no decorations. I move through the pleasantries, office secret Santa exchanges, holiday music, and pervasive smell of balsam and cinnamon. I don’t try because I don’t want to. ‘We don’t really celebrate Christmas’ becomes my mantra.

This year is another mixed bag of emotions. Grief pops in to say hello as the weather gets colder and I can feel the anxiety and anticipation of Christmas looming. This year has taken an interesting turn; my husband is joyful said he’s feeling the Christmas spirit and I did do a round of holiday shopping with my brother at all our favorite thrift and discount spots, a ritual we haven’t done in more years than I can count. While I am enjoying these moments, I’m not looking to regain the ‘Christmas spirit’ although it is a bit comforting to feel something besides grief this time of the year.

Today

It has taken me weeks to write this post. I’ve added a few sentences here and there at work until the tears start to come and I can’t bear the though of my coworkers catching me crying at my desk. I can’t bring myself to go back and make any edits or re-read for content holes or duplication. I ask my husband to proof read when I’m not home.

I suspect this will always be a difficult time for me. I am working to accept my emotions and release them as they come. It is an ongoing process.

moving forward

I feel like it is important for all of us to acknowledge a few things this time of year:

  • Holidays look different for everyone.
  • Holidays and anniversaries can bring on difficult emotions and grief.
  • People are very good at hiding what they are experiencing.

Do I want to celebrate Christmas? Perhaps a new version. Honestly, I’m not really sure what that could look like. Maybe I’ll lean more towards Yule traditions or develop something new that feels comforting and compelling. For now I continue to live with my grief. Some days it whispers and other days it yells. This time of year, it screams.

For those of you who know me well, reading this may feel a bit jarring. While my intent was not to surprise anyone or to make them feel uncomfortable, it should be noted that my concealing of these feeling and emotions is the basis of the point I am hoping to convey; you just don’t know where someone is at in their healing. Even if you had asked me, never would I have divulged all this information.

I’m not certain why it feels right to share my story now but I do hope this can be a turning point for myself and others who may be experiencing something similar. We will all carry grief with us at some point in our lives. If you’re an avoider like me, you may think you’ve pushed it away but it will come back. I don’t have any profound advice or an inspirational quote to share and I’m not interested in wrapping this difficult story with a pretty bow. Just know that grief can be managed and you can and should reach out for help, support, and healing.

With compassion and comfort, Kristen


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