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Grief at the Holidays

When we look from a distance at someone who has suffered the death of a loved one, we usually think of that death as an event, a specific incident that happened at such-and-such date and time and place.

But that’s not how it works. Yes, there was a specific date when a dying happened. But a death—for those who have lost someone, a death knows no end.

Death is the absence of the one we love.

The dying—the beginning of that absence—occurs, and then the next moment happens, and the moment after that. The moments pile up over time and turn into days, and months, and years, but in every single one of those moments—the one we love continues to be gone.

Grieving Intensifies During the Holidays

If you’ve lost someone close to you, you know that he or she continues to be gone during the holiday season as well, of course. You know they won’t be here—and steal yourself for their conspicuous absence during this family time of year. Perhaps you even dread the coming of the holidays, wishing you could turn the calendar straight to January.

No matter how much you’ve prepared yourself, anticipating how the holiday season will magnify the loss of the one you love, it seems there are always other losses that appear as well.

What doesn’t hit you at first is that when your loved one leaves this life, he or she dragged a whole lot more of your world through that crack than you could ever imagine. Over the days and months following the death, you inevitably find yourself tripping over holes as you discover yet another item or routine or tradition or symbol that’s now gone too, gone with that person.

These other losses aren’t limited to the end-of-year holidays—but think about all the traditions, routines, and symbols wrapped up in this season. At this time of year, there are so many more pieces of your old life that you now discover are lost, broken, or gone entirely.

Sometimes it helps to be with others who are grieving, to share stories and know that you’re not alone in discovering new “holes” during a season when others are celebrating. That’s part of what happens in the Highmark Caring Place environment.

Here are a few holiday losses that children and adults at the Caring Place have shared with us:

  1. “My husband was the one who put all the decorations out every year. He was like a little kid; he just loved the holidays. It feels so empty without his holiday spirit around. And the house looks sad and dark without all the attention he used to put into dressing it up. I knew I’d miss him, but I never realized all he added to the holidays.”

  1. “On New Year’s Eve, my mom would make these special soft pretzels that we would all eat just at midnight. We would dip them in all kinds of things; some sweet, some salty, some even hot and spicy. It was always a special time, not only for our family, but we’d invite friends and neighbors to join us too. After my mom died, it was just the three of us in the house on New Year’s Eve, and we didn’t even stay up to midnight. We just went to bed.”

  1. “My dad lit the shamash, the big candle, in our menorah every night of Hanukkah, every year. We would each have a chance to light the other candles, but it was always my dad’s job to light the shamash first every night. It feels so weird now when someone else lights it; it just doesn’t feel right.”

  1. “I remember my mother made cookies every December. She made a lot of them, and gave them to a lot of people. It seemed like the whole house smelled like cookies for a whole month. After Thanksgiving that first year, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, until it hit me that the house didn’t smell right—it just smelled like a regular old house. I think I miss that smell more than anything else.”