Navigating Tragedies Around the Holidays

Man depression during christmas holiday and new year day

Most of us are aware that we live in a world where tragedies can happen to us or to people we love, often without warning. These are those shocking events that usually happen unexpectedly that devastate someone or perhaps a whole group of people. Sometimes someone is physically injured or even killed, as in a traffic accident. Sometimes someone’s life is turned upside down because they discover an enormous betrayal by a trusted friend or family member. Sometimes there is a catastrophic weather event such as a tornado that wipes out whole communities. 

Tragedies can shock our emotional inner worlds to the core. There can be feelings of disbelief, the hope that the information is not correct, feelings of horror and devastation. Sometimes it feels like we have to do something to try to stop whatever is happening or make the people who might be impacted somehow safe. Sometimes we are basically paralyzed and can’t think at all. 

At some point we are faced with having to accept the realities of the tragedy. Our hearts can break, we can fall to pieces, we often are overwhelmed by our own emotions, sometimes including anger because someone somehow missed the opportunity to prevent the tragedy from happening in the first place. Sometimes we’re the one who made a mistake, who didn’t think things through, and as a result because of the tragedy, didn’t have the wherewithal to stop it or protect those impacted by it. 

Tragedies are seared into our memories because of the enormity of our emotional reactions. Sometimes we are left feeling regret, guilt, shame, even deep fear and anxiety because something so devastating could happen again. Sometimes we experience vengeful feelings as if hurting whoever was responsible could somehow alleviate some of the pain. We also have a host of associations that are connected to whatever was going on when the tragedy happened. The sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are registered in our brains can not only remind us of the exact moment when we experienced or learned about a tragedy but can cause us to re-experience those sensations of the memories of what happened that make us feel like we are re-experiencing it all over again. 

When tragedies happen during a holiday or some other traditional time of celebration, we may not be able to prevent our minds from re-experiencing the sadness and loss every time that holiday or celebration occurs. The pain of those memories can prevent, or at least dampen, feelings of excitement and happiness. Some people, knowing this is going to be the reaction, can refuse to participate in holiday traditions or celebrations to avoid re-experiencing pain. 

While no one can be prepared for tragic events, we have the power to respond to them in ways that are healthier and can help us address, deal with and recover from the emotional devastation. 

First and foremost, we need to give ourselves permission to experience all the emotions we are having, including the profound experiences of grief and loss. We need to be able to express our pain, to know those expressions are acceptable and important. We can help others by giving them the same permissions. We need to know that recovery is possible even when a deep sense of loss will probably always be on our hearts. It is important not to rush to a place of acceptance; rather we need to do the grief work and have the knowledge that eventually some of the pain will subside and we can remember without constantly feeling devastated. 

Sad black young woman sitting in the living room at home during christmas holiday

Those of us who are people of faith we can lean on the belief that there is a Higher Power who is ultimately in charge of the world and that losses, especially when someone dies, are not a final end because we are confident that there is more to life than what we know here on earth.  

We also can trust that we can gather to share our losses, express our feelings, celebrate the fact that we have strength in our love for each other and abilities to extend compassion and deep appreciation for whatever pain each of us is experiencing. We can participate in the rituals that are based on wisdom from our ancestors about how to grieve together. 

We can find ways to honor those injured by tragedies and those who were lost as a result of the tragedy so that in the future, when anniversaries occur, especially around holidays, we can almost welcome the many memories that are evoked. These memories can remind us of whatever was important, meaningful and beautiful about those who were injured or who we lost. The longer that we live the more we can anticipate there will be a certain number of tragedies we will need to deal with. While we don’t know specifically what these will be, we can take comfort in knowing that there are ways to survive them and even gain new wisdom and hope as a result of them. 

Invitation for Reflection 

  1. What specific tragic events have you experienced in your lifetime? To what extent were you able to grieve any losses, feel accepted by those around you, experience comfort? 
  2. What can you do now to deal with memories of tragic losses in your life, especially any that occurred around holidays? 
  3. How can you help those you care about feel comforted and accepted for however they respond to tragedies that occur in their lives? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute