In his paper, “Recovering Grief in the age of GriefRecovery”, my friend, Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, describes a “Dialectic of Grief”. He says that grief is indistinguishable from love. The process of grief, therefore, is the act of learning to love in the condition of absence. So, when we have moments (memories, events, experiences) that connect us to the person that is lost, we feel simultaneously connected to them and aware of their absence at the same time. I believe this idea can be extended beyond physical loss to more intangible losses (like the loss of hopes, dreams, and ideallic expectations.) Perhaps this is why the holidays with their joy and gatherings of friends and family can be difficult for so many people. In the moment that we are experiencing the presence of those close to us and the joy of the season, we are simultaneously reminded of those who are no longer with us. For some, it is a painful reminder of those who have left voluntarily. For some it is a reminder that they have been hurt deeply by a family member who they may or may not have to spend time with during the holidays. For others, the joy of the holidays rings empty because depression or other emotional struggle has robbed them of the ability to experience it.
Dr. Rogers-Vaughn says that grief is not something to recover from, but something we simply need to recover. Too often our thoughts about grief have to do with ways to diminish it or avoid it. Overt or subtle attempts to bypass the grief process or to avoid grief altogether, can lead us to avoid meaningful attachments in a misdirected attempt to avoid loss. Attempts to bypass grief become twisted into psychopathology, addiction, and even violence. The only way to get through grief is to go through grief. What lies on the other side is not the absence of grief, but the acceptance of it. A grief embraced can open us to a new way of seeing the world, becomes a foundation on which we construct hope, and transforms our love and faith. Being able to accept grief as part of life is a fundamental part of being able to experience true joy.
So, this holiday season, rather than seeking to avoid grief by changing your plans or anesthetizing your pain. Allow yourself to grieve what losses you may have. Create ways of remembering the person that is no longer with you. (For a good article on creating personal grieving rituals, click here.) Make time to feel your feelings and share them with trusted others. It may be helpful to write those feelings and reflections in a journal. Many congregations offer services of hope and remembrance or so called, “Blue Christmas” services. These services can be a good opportunity for remembering and connection with our grief. Others may find it helpful to talk with a professional therapist about their grief. I pray that in this season, you will find the true joy of grief embraced.