One of my oldest memories of Christmas is putting up our Christmas tree as a family. My brother is allergic to fir trees, so we always used the same artificial tree, carefully fluffing the individual branches to make it look less scraggly. Then came the lights. This was before pre-lit trees, so we individually screwed in each colored bulb in the right order, plugged it in and changed out any burnt-out bulbs. Then it was my dad’s turn with the lights. He would wrestle the lights onto the tree grunting and grumbling while my mom followed him around and around holding up the trailing strand of lights.
Memories like this come back to me every year, especially now that my dad is gone. He was diagnosed in June of 2017 with a terminal brain tumor. After going through brain surgery, chemo and radiation, he went to his eternal home on March 23, 2018.
If you’ve never experienced grief you can’t really understand how sneaky it is. A song in the grocery store, a smell while you’re on a walk, a look in your child’s face – any and every little thing can trigger the tumult of emotions that I so desperately try to suppress. This tumult is hard to understand if you’re experiencing it, and even more so if you aren’t. So, let’s start at the beginning.
It’s fairly common knowledge that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. What’s not as commonly known is these don’t always happen in order and they can be repeated ad nauseam. When my dad first died, I felt numb to it, like he hadn’t really died, and he would text me any day with a joke. And sometimes I still experience this denial; feeling like at any moment he may call to see how I’m doing. In the anger stage, I feel how incredibly stupid it is that a perfectly healthy man who was kind and loving should suddenly and inexplicably develop terminal brain cancer. My anger towards his death creeps in and I snap at my family until I finally realize what’s really causing my anger. Then I am sad. Sad for the new normal I have found and the things he would be doing if he were here. Other times I feel grateful that my dad isn’t suffering and that he’s living free of pain with his Savior. This is my acceptance stage. And then it runs through again and again. I often get stuck in anger and sadness. Others may stay in denial for years while others miraculously live mostly in acceptance.
No matter what stage you are experiencing, grief is like a computer program running in the background – sometimes it may go unnoticed, but it is always present, affecting every other open program and sometimes pulled to the forefront blocking out everything else.
But recently grief expert David Kessler added a sixth stage of grief to the canon: meaning. In this stage, I can see hope. Most people who lose a loved one don’t want that person to be forgotten. My dad didn’t want to be forgotten, and simply by writing this article I am preserving his memory in a way neither of us could have imagined during his life. I’ve also had the opportunity to minister to friends grieving the loss of a loved one. I would never have been able to offer love and understanding to those friends in the same way if my dad was well. This is meaningful to me.
During the holidays, it’s easy for me to camp out in anger and sadness. My loss feels more raw than normal and my emotions burst forth at inopportune moments. Parties are overwhelming. Christmas shopping brings anxiety. Other people’s joy is salt in my wounds. But I’m learning to take it slow. The first fall season that Dad was gone I attended a “Surviving the Holidays” class put on by an organization called Grief Share. It was full of helpful information, but I’ll only share with you the main things that helped me:
First, you don’t have to move on.
Yes, you read that correctly. You do not have to move on, but you do need to move forward. Moving on implies leaving something behind. I don’t want to leave my dad behind. I want to remember him. I want my small sons to know they had a grandpa who loved them so well. Moving forward implies bringing something with you. As much as I want to go back to the times when my dad was healthy, I can’t. But I can bring those stories and memories with me. I can tell my sons when they do something that reminds me of my dad. I can say silly things to them that Dad used to say to me. I can move forward in compassion and tenderness that only comes from experiencing grief.
Second, take the holidays easy.
Be willing to let go of things that you might have normally done. You don’t have to keep doing it all. If you say yes to a party or dinner but aren’t sure you’ll be able to make it, tell the host to hold your “yes” loosely. “I want to come, but I also don’t want to come and be sad or angry the whole time. I’ll say yes for now, but I may text you later and say I’m not coming.” Hopefully, they will understand. If they don’t, well, it probably wouldn’t have been a good situation to be there anyway.
Third, celebrate the way you want.
Maybe some traditions were important to your loved one that you didn’t particularly like. You don’t have to do those things. You aren’t betraying that person or their memory by not doing it. If you want to do things exactly as that person would have, you’re allowed to do that, too. My dad always made us take a family photo at Christmas with the entire extended family. We always grumbled and groaned about it and it seemed to take forever for him to get his camera on the tripod, set the timer, run to his spot, snap the photo and then do it all again. At least three times. None of us would ever have said it was our favorite part of the holidays. But we can see our family grow and change in Christmas photos year after year from decades past. Now that Dad’s gone this tradition is something none of us want to do away with.
As we wade through this holiday season, I pray my experience can help you identify and respond to the grief you or a loved one may be facing. Experiencing grief is never easy. When it happens, we must walk through it, but we don’t have to walk it alone. Psalm 34:18a (NIV) says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” I have experienced this and can attest that when we are weak, He is strong.
Emily Honea lives with her husband and two young sons and spends her time wrangling and homeschooling her children, while trying to make sure to slow down and enjoy life. She also runs a podcast with her mom called Uniquely You Podcast.