Thursday, December 6, 2012

Holiday stages

*I wrote this original post in December 2009.  I find that as we move into the winter holidays, practically everyone that I speak with wrestles with some form of sadness. I thought it would be appropriate to revisit this post, as it helped many people when it was first published.*

From the title of this blog post, you may be expecting a happy story about a Christmas event or pageant, children on stage singing or dancing.  Instead, what you'll be reading about is dealing with grief during the holiday season.

It is a proven fact that around religious holidays, be it Christmas,  Hanukkah, Easter, etc., there is an increase in mortality rates.  The concept of mortality rates can be traced as far back into history as Babylonian times and the rule of King Hammurabi.  In our modern times, this translates into insurance companies creating their mortality charts.  As this became standard practice, there became occasional note in media that death rates increase around significant religious holidays.

Think for a moment, and doubtless, either you or someone you know has lost a beloved family member or friend around a religious holiday.  I fall into this category, having lost the person I consider to be my strongest father figure.  He was my Uncle, my Mom's eldest brother, the patriarch of our clan.  Several years ago, he passed from this life on Christmas Eve morning after a lengthy, brave battle with debilitating illness.  As the Christmas holidays draw near, I find, despite my best intentions, there are definitely moments of melancholy that visit my heart.  Small wonder that if I feel these moments, the rest of the world might be visited by similar feelings in relation to their own personal losses.

There are many schools of thought about reasons that so many souls choose a religious holiday as the time to release from their physical body and pass from this reality.  My own thoughts on this topic are very personal, with one of the thoughts being that our Souls recognize an increased energy around high holy days.  I have always thought that this increased energy might facilitate an individual in making the choice to release from their physical body.  The reasons are myriad, the theories about this are endless, and at the end of the day, they probably don't matter beyond the ability to comfort us in the midst of painful, sad moments.

I have no mysterious remedy for this, other than to give it voice.  We are all very accustomed to slapping on that bright, cheerful social mask to cover our roiling emotions.  It's the holiday season (or whatever other particular moment in life where sad memories surface), be happy, upbeat and positive!!!  Don't be sad about the loss of a loved one, for fear you might drag everyone else down around you!!  Right?!  We all feel obligated to project that facade so that we don't make others uncomfortable or sad right along with us.  It is obvious that this tendency to stuff down our emotions around significant holidays and/or anniversaries of losing a loved one makes dealing with these significant dates that much more challenging.  When, and why did we as a collective society decide that it makes more sense to paste a happy smile on our faces than to honor our true emotions? 

Strong emotions, especially those connected to loss, do make most people uncomfortable.  It hits too closely to home for everyone; if you're mourning the death of a loved one and you present those emotions outwardly, that in turn can trigger buried emotions in others.  It's just a human response, this triggering of fears and resistance, and the need to cover everything up with a neat, tidy, happy facade.  Another truth is that most of us don't deal with significant loss immediately and instantly. 

Most of us are familiar with the five stages of grief.  They are as follows:
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
Each person and each situation, each loss, is different regarding the manner in which these stages are processed.  For some, although I would think this is rare, the five stages are processed quickly and dealt with in a short amount of linear time.  For others, the process can take much longer, sometimes years.  Another point to make is that even after we have navigated our way through those stages, they can boomerang on us and creep back in unexpectedly, years later.  Anniversaries of loss are strong triggers What has always frustrated me is the medical mindset that after making our way through those five stages once, then it is all said and done, all bound up in an orderly bundle, case closed and door shut permanently.  I strongly disagree with that mindset.

Christmas, Hanukkah and the New Year, altogether, present a time when family and friendship is our focus, so of course sadness will lurk beneath the surface as we have wistful moments, missing those no longer here with us physically.  It is, therefore, not surprising that we'll sometimes feel sucker punched with sad moments.
Dealing with sad anniversaries is never easy.  What works for me might not work for you, but I can share my own process.  When I begin to feel those sad moments creeping in, the most important step that I take is to recognize it for what it is.  Life can be so hectic around the Christmas season that we don't pay enough attention to how we're honestly feeling.  We'll rush from one obligation and social function to the next, pushing the sad, bad, confused or angry emotions down until they finally expand and explode.  So, for my own mental and emotional health, I find it of paramount importance to stop and identify what I'm feeling.  It doesn't always come readily to mind for me either, because of course it's much easier to deny sadness and instead label it as being tired or grumpy or something much easier to ignore.

What I have learned over the years is that embracing the seemingly negative emotions does not equal failure of any type on a personal level.  The true failure, I feel, comes from denying what we feel and never allowing it to have enough of a voice for it to be processed.  So, I take time to look inward.  It isn't always pleasant, or easy, and rarely is it enjoyable.  It is, above all, vitally important.  I feel that in a way, it is a moment of Grace and tribute, when I stop, identify the reason for those melancholy moments and let myself feel what comes from within.  Grace, because I am honoring myself when I allow myself to grieve.  Tribute, because in recognizing these feelings, it gives me a moment to remember the person I loved deeply.  When I do open up to myself, the memories that I embrace are inexorably entwined with all the reasons I loved that person.  So, yes, sadness will be felt.  Many times the result is tears. Eventually, though, happier memories will also flood my mind and in a different manner, I will go through those five stages of grief all over again before coming to that moment of acceptance.

The inescapable truth is that when we lose someone we love, it is a life sentence.  We spend the rest of our lives learning how to cope, manage our lives and live without that person's physical presence.  That's the challenging part.  Just when we think we're doing really well, a holiday or anniversary will approach and cut us off at the knees.  Psychologists developed the five stages of grief to identify what we are feeling and where we are in relation to dealing with personal loss.  From that perspective, the concept is valid, but I honestly feel that it doesn't come to a definitive, full stop, ever.  I am not saying that we exist in sharp, raw grief permanently, nor would I suggest such a thing is healthy or prudent.  What I am trying to point out is that we do experience layers of grief, sadness and loss in sometimes unexpected ways at different times, for various reasons. As a result, we experience a micro-moment, often repeatedly, of those five stages.

In light of this, I think that kindness would be the word of the day. If you can step back from everything else that requires your attention and focus your attention on You, compassion and understanding are what you deserve when you are confronted with those unexpected holiday triggers, layers and stages of sadness.  You deserve kindness, and a few quiet moments to look clearly at what you are feeling.  Give it voice, allow yourself to feel, to remember, to cry; perhaps smile or laugh.  Then, when you feel ready, you will be able to gently tuck the memories back into a corner of your heart and mind that will allow you to move forward with strength, rather than sapping you of energy and enjoyment of the holiday season.  Remind yourself that these feelings will surface again, and recognize that this time, by embracing the moment with Grace and acceptance, you will possibly be able to achieve a more solid balance.

Talking about it with family or friends might be an integral part of this process; there are no hard and fast rules here.  Do what works best and feels right for you.  In talking with others, you may be surprised to find that you've opened the door up for them as well, to do some processing, sharing and healing of their own.

In closing, I wrestled with myself about posting this blog.  It is a highly personal and volatile subject, and perhaps not one many will want to contemplate in the midst of the holiday season. I was feeling sadness as the calendar approaches a personal anniversary date of loss, and for me, writing out the emotions and giving them voice was helpful and healing. I have no idea if what I have written and shared will be of a helpful nature to others, but I am going ahead with posting it.  Perhaps these words and thoughts will resonate with others out there and bring a moment of clarity and peace to their hearts as they realize they are not alone with what they are feeling.  Maybe the simple suggestion that yes, you will go through repeated, myriad experiences of those five stages will be a moment of epiphany for someone out there, allowing them to embrace kindness towards themselves as they process through that most current incarnation. 

If you have stayed with me through to the culmination of this particular post, whether it clicked with you on a personal level or not, you have my appreciation for spending time with me as I navigated through my own five holiday stages.  As a result, my heart is lighter and I have been able to move forward with a gladdened spirit to enjoy my Christmas.  Blessings to you all, this year, this holiday season.


  1. I find my eyes filling with tears as I read this post. For just a moment, I can reflect on my past, and allow the emotions that have been just under the surface during this Christmas season. Being a guy, I repress these feelings and never allow anyone to know I am hurting inside. Thank you for giving that moment when I can put down my guard, and tomorrow morning, I'll climb out of bed, and no one will know the hurt. And I am praying for you, Dawn, as you go thru this Holiday season, that every time you think of the passing of your loved one, that you can feel the arms of God surrounding you in a hug.

  2. I was just ready to shut my laptop down when I rec'd the alert that you had posted a comment on my blog. After reading your comment, I can sleep tonight, knowing that there was rhyme and reason for this post. I felt very compelled to write it, but after posting, had concerns it would be depressing or gloomy for others to read during the holidays. I'm glad that as you read it, the intent that I had in writing it was received clearly.

    Thank you, my dear friend, for the loving words, prayers and kindness of your comment. It matters so much and makes a difference. My heart continues to lighten! You're in my thoughts also, always.

    ~ Dawn

  3. Dear Dawn,

    Thank you for baring your soul about your experiences with grief and the steps which we need to go through. My husband and I lost both of our mothers unexpectadely in March 2008 (within a week from each other). People think that we should just magically be over the grief because it has been a certain amount of time.

    Last Christmas was horrible and this year seems to be better; however have noticed that my hubby and I are snipping at each other a lot lately and we just realized that it was because we are both sad and missing our moms.

    Anyways, thank you so much...I know that we are not alone in this process.

  4. Hey Sister,
    I am loving the way you are writing about the "real stuff" of life. Someone had to do it and it's you friend. Soooo good.
    I lost my youngest brother on New Years Day and my brother-in law on the same holiday as well. It's been a couple of years, but yes the sadness surfaces and the missing their presence yet knowing they are in a better place.
    I'll be thinking of all of us who experience these kind of emotions during the holidays. I esp. want to be more in touch with my emotions during this time. I have a pattern of "stuffing" and it always comes out eventually in some form or fashion which isn't a good thing. love ya sister, Janie

  5. Jane & Sally Lee, thank you both for the comments about this post. As I mentioned in the article, I wrestled w/ whether to go forward with posting it, for fear it would be a downer for readers. I decided to post it and am glad that I did, because it has resulted in such positive feedback and comments such as those you both posted. Jane, I guess you're right - someone needs to write about the difficult things, and yep, why not me? I grow on a personal level when I address those difficult issues, and it gives me a chance to reach out to others and open up discussion.

    Ladies, you've both made my day with your comments. I support you both as you work to balance the holidays with good hearts and cheer while also remembering those you've said goodbye to without allowing it to affect the rest of your daily existence. This is a big one for all of us!

    Blessings to you both!

  6. I appreciate you posting this during the holiday season because I do know that it's so hard for many. I know someone whose husband died this past year and I've been especially praying for her because I know it must be so tough this first Christmas without him.

  7. Tracy, thank you for taking time to comment. I knew this would be one of those polarizing topics, and I am happy that in some small way what I wrote is proving to be therapeutic and helpful for my readers. I'm doing okay today; my own personal anniversary is Christmas Eve morning. Oddly, that specific day isn't when I get's about a week or so prior and it takes me a moment to identify where the emotions are coming from. Grief waxes and wanes and it's a good thing to know that others recognize it's valid to really FEEL these feelings. Blessings to you and your friend that you mentioned, Tracy.

    ~ Dawn

  8. Hello Dawn,

    Excellent post. I am a widow more than five years. I live, I laugh, and yes, I dare to love, again. Am I "over" it? Never. Thank you for validating me.

    Linda Della Donna

  9. Linda, I'm so glad we connected! I view blogging and FB as such wonderful tools to meet some very insightful, talented and just plain good people. The learning to go on living part is the indefinable object, isn't it - that which we constantly strive to achieve, but which is frequently just out of reach....similar to those we have released from the physical body.

    They are there, obviously, as we feel their presence, but just beyond our corporeal reach. So, we pull up our socks, we keep living, we love again and we find joyful moments. But we are forever changed. I will always validate that emotion and awareness, as I feel it strongly myself.

    Thank you for your kind words, my new friend. This was one of my more somber blog articles, but I also write a myriad of tones and touch on so many different topics. I hope you get a chance to visit again. I shall also visit your blogs - thank you for providing the links.

    ~ Dawn

  10. Thanks for this important post on a topic many people overlook during the holidays. When we feel sad or not in the "holiday spirit" we might feel like there is something wrong with us. Knowing that others feel this way too can help us see this a normal and we can offer support and compassion to ourselves and each other.

    1. Galen, I agree with you - just knowing we're not alone with sad feelings cropping up this time of year is validating. I just got off the phone with a dear friend who admitted to me that she felt guilty about feeling sad, and that opened up discussion. You offered another solid word: compassion. That is so important! I'm glad you enjoyed this article; thank you for taking time to visit & leave such a thoughtful comment. :)


      - Dawn

  11. I don't know if a person ever quite recovers. I think the heart heals over and opens itself up again, but the ache is ever present, just dull. Have you thought of pitching it to the Huffington Post - it sends a good message and is a reminder to those going through similar now. Food for thought..

    1. Brenda, I've said similar words countless times myself. I don't know how it is possible to every truly and completely recover from the loss of someone we loved, nor, deep in my heart, am I sure we should or could.

      Pitching to Huffington Post - no, I hadn't ever thought of that! I will have to investigate the process of this, and I appreciate you suggesting it and feeling this article has merit to submit to them!

      Sending smiles & appreciation to you!

      - Dawn

  12. Thank you for this post Dawn... I see so many people feel so much pain around the holidays. I am feeling a little right now, nothing compared to what other people deal with but still... I feel it.