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Grief, Loss and The Emotional Toll of the Holidays

resiliency, depression, help, Christmas, Thanksgiving
When I became a mom, I renewed my sense of holiday spirit.  

Because of my strong desire to create holiday magic for my little man, I managed to keep my grief around the holidays buried for the first couple of years of his life.  But the Universe wasn’t going to let me off that easy (She NEVER does).

***Trigger Warning***

I am going to share some dark stories with you. I hope that I can help you gain some perspective on the grief that can show up this time of year. Talking about grief can be uncomfortable, but not dealing with grief can be devastating.

My first-holiday loss.

The year was 1986; I was ten years old. My dad picked my little brother and me up from school the Friday before Christmas break.  My dad NEVER picked us up from school, and I felt something was off as soon as we got in the truck. He told us that my Grandpa Meyer, my mom’s dad, had passed away, and my parents would be flying back to New York for the services and Christmas

I didn’t know my grandpa Meyer very well because they lived on the east coast and we didn’t travel back there often. I remember him calling me Snicklefritz, smoking cigarettes, and sitting in his chair in front of a big window that looked at the backyard at their house in Middletown, NY.

What I remember most about that Christmas is how sad my mom was, but my parents didn’t talk to me about the loss.

The loss continued

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My grandma Kinsley made the holiday season (and my childhood) magical for me.  She was a big candy maker, and the candy preparations began right around Thanksgiving, with the culminating event being a New Year’s day party.  Grandma Kinsley was synonymous with the holidays until dementia got the best of her.

My grandma did such an incredible job creating holiday traditions and memories that they have lived on well beyond her physical presence here on earth.

My parents made the painful choice to put Grandma in a nursing home. She was feisty and frequently fighting with the staff, stealing the other patient’s belongings, and trying to leave the facility regularly. Her brain no longer worked correctly, and she stopped eating; it was her way of telling us she was done with her time here on earth.  On January 9, 1997, grandma Kinsley became my guardian angel.  On the night she transitioned, I went to say goodbye, and for the first time in several years, I could see in her eyes that she recognized me. I knew she was at peace and would be joining the love of her life, Vance.

Then I became a Firefighter.

My profession exposes me regularly to trauma that is impossible to prepare for.  I accepted the role as a public servant with excitement and anticipation to make a difference in the community I serve. My heart breaks a little bit each time someone in my community dies, but there is something about this time of year that hurts my heart even more when someone suffers.

The first time I saw a dead baby was almost a year after I was on the job.  It was the middle of the night, just after Christmas. The tree and decorations were still displayed. The 11-week old boy did not have a heartbeat and wasn’t breathing.  I will never forget using my three fingers for chest compressions and the chaos surrounding the scene.  My best friend’s son was the same age at the time; the pain and suffering in that apartment were beyond heavy. 

And Then…

A few years later, I responded to a  house fire just before Thanksgiving.  The large column of smoke visible as we pulled out of the station indicated that we were going to a working fire.  On the way to the fire, dispatch said that there was a baby inside the house.  My. Worst. Nightmare.  Yes, firefighters train to save lives. Yes, it is a calling that not many people can answer. But the moment we arrived on the scene of that fully involved house fire, I knew that no one could survive in those conditions, but my partner and I went into the house to find the baby.

I found him, I held him in my arms, and time stood still. It was a surreal moment. While they were still extinguishing the fire, I stood in the house, holding this small lifeless human in my bunker gear, crying. I was heartbroken, and I never had the same anticipation and excitement about a structure fire again.


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More loss

In October of 2010, my Grandma Meyer, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday, passed away. The family was able to go back east and celebrate her incredible life just before Thanksgiving. And a year later, my former father-in-law passed away the day before Thanksgiving and the day after we heard my little man’s heartbeat.  

A few years later, I filed for divorce on Thanksgiving week.  My ex and son flew to Texas for Thanksgiving. I had never been away from my little man for that amount of time. So much loss in such a short amount of time was lonely and overwhelming.

I found myself at the lowest and darkest time of my life, so I attended a grief workshop to get tools to help me through the upcoming holidays. The workshop was great, but I fell deeper into a dark hole. I was miserable at work, drinking too much, and receiving frequent anonymous letters confirming my self-doubt and insecurities. For the first time in my life, I began to think about ending my life. But my little man saved me, he deserved to have a mom, and I didn’t want him to carry that burden. I found my rock bottom.

You Can’t Replace the Grief, Loss, or Pain

I carry the suicides, the assaults, the death by natural causes, the families with nothing, and my community members with me.  My losses replay on a constant loop in my head this time of year. There have been times that I have opted out of decorating.  The pressure to make all the social engagements, buy gifts, and share all the memories with a significant other has often overwhelmed me.  Lonely feels a little stronger this time of year.

But Here Are Some Suggestions That Will Help Get You Through

1. You Don’t Have to go Anywhere You Don’t Want to Go.

Last time I checked, there are no laws in place that force you to attend every holiday party, work function, or family gathering.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by the thought of being that social, then don’t! You don’t need a reason or an explanation. It is ok to take a hard pass on social functions that don’t give you an “A F@%! Yes,” response.

2. Take a Moment to Honor Those Not With You

For several years, I tried to bury my losses between October and January.  Then, two years ago, I chose to live. I decided that the best thing I could do is to honor their spirit.  So, I say a prayer for all of the losses I carry around with me.  I send them good feelings, and I give a shoutout to the universe to guide me through my journey. Grief can produce a range of emotions, and they will continue to come like waves in the ocean. When the feelings arise, feel them and let them wash over you.

3. Start New Traditions

I still make my Grandma Kinsley’s peanut brittle and spend the day baking treats for friends, and my family prefers to open our gifts on Christmas Eve. Little Man and I have created our own traditions like The Elf on the Shelf, playing Christmas music all the time, holiday movies, and experiences like the Santa train and holiday shows at the theater!

4. Have an Attitude of Gratitude

Life is messy. You can’t control most of what happens to you. You can control how you respond to what happens. Life is wonderful, and I don’t want you to miss the great moments. Take a few moments every day to acknowledge the beauty around you. My gratitude journal changed my life. It helped put things into perspective for me.  Tell your people how you feel, give love freely, don’t carry grudges, hug it out, and don’t live with “what if.”

If the holidays are a tough time of year, please know that you are not alone. You can always reach out to talk to someone. The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255!

Do what feels best for you and your family this holiday season. Are there new traditions you can start? Is there something you can do to honor a loved one? Remember to have grace for you and those around you.



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