Sad, lonely girl looking to the side, thinking.

Appreciating that the Holidays Can Be a Time of Grief and Loss

Most of us associate the holidays with celebrating, decorating, gift giving, and gathering with family and friends. Certainly if you watch any of the ads on TV, these are images regularly portrayed through joy-filled scenes and cheerful music.

However for many people, holidays can be a time of grief, sadness and loss. Many times these go unnoticed or unappreciated by others, which can lead to even greater grief, sadness, and loss, then coupled with secrecy and isolation. Sometimes these losses can cause or exacerbate existing trauma.

This past summer I spent quite a bit of time writing a workshop for Lakeside on grief and trauma. I learned a great deal in my research that I think we all can benefit from knowing. This information is especially important to appreciate when it comes to the losses children can experience.

Levine and Kline in Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes state that, “Grief is the emotion that accompanies loss. Whether the trauma is from a disaster, such as a fire or flood, or from a betrayal, such as molestation or abandonment by a trusted adult, something of value has been lost. Whether it is material, such as the family’s house and personal possessions, or something less tangible, such as the loss of innocence, the sense of the world as a safe place seems to be gone forever. It is possible to have grief without trauma; it is not possible to have trauma without grief.”

Some of the losses and sources of grief that can occur during the holidays include missing a beloved family member who is no longer alive, struggling with issues around custody and who gets the children over the holidays, not being able to afford expensive toys that children are expecting, being teased at school for beliefs, open hostility between family members, to name a few. Some losses do not result in trauma, but many can.  

Dr. Sandra Bloom in Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies provides a framework for understanding trauma and grief, shares the following: “There is much to grieve for when you have suffered abuse as a child. Humankind has always sought comfort in the myth of a golden age, when all was right with the world. So too do individual humans need a sense that there was a time when all was well, when they were loved, cherished, and protected, a time of safety and predictability that could come again; a time of innocence when all was right with the world. This feeling is the steady building block upon which we stand for the rest of our lives and to which we return for the means of self-confidence. It is upon this cornerstone that we built our sense of self-esteem, confidence, a sense of mastery in the world. Children who are abused or neglected are deprived of this very basic foundation. Part of the reason why we resist remembering the reality of many of our childhood experiences is that we do not want to remember what it was really like, how helpless and lonely we often were. The worse the abuse or deprivation, the more powerful the defense against remembering and feeling the weight of the sadness.

We can view this information in light of the losses that can occur over the holidays.

One of the most important ways any of us can care for someone who has experienced loss at the holidays (or any time) is to actively listen to them which allows that person to share, process and release some of the built-up negative energy that losses produce in the body. Listening involves accepting whatever that person feels and believes is true, even if we disagree with that reaction.

It involves putting into words what the person has experienced.  “You are so sad that Grandma is not here for Christmas. You have so many special memories of her bringing so much joy to all of us,” Or, “It is very hard for you to have to spend the holidays with your dad and not be with your mom.”  

When listening you avoid:

  • reassuring them –“It’s going to be fine. We can still have fun”
  • explaining why they are struggling –“People in your situation don’t know why they have to go through this pain but pain is a part of life”
  • suggesting something they can do to help them feel better -“Why don’t you try to remember last year and how happy you were and then you won’t feel so sad”
  • sharing your own story -“I remember how hard it was for me when I was only 10 years old and my beloved uncle suddenly died at the holidays”
  • asking too many questions –“How long have you been feeling like this? How often do you find yourself crying?” 

While people say these kinds of things because they want to be helpful, it can interfere with allowing the person to fully share their thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs, or memories.

It’s wise to recognize that holidays can be times when people – including children – deal with grief, sadness, loss, and sometimes trauma. This provides us with opportunities to give the gift of nurturing and allows those traumatized people in our orbs the opportunities to be heard. 

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Can you recall a time over a holiday when you experienced significant loss and dealt with your own grief? To what extent did you have opportunities to process that loss?
  2. How can you apply this information to the upcoming holidays? Can you think of a specific person who might benefit from having you there to help them process their thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs or memories associated with a loss?