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Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

NOTE: This post was written by Hannah Guzewicz

If you are someone in grief, the holidays can be an interesting time of year. There is so much merriment and joy; anticipation and celebration, and yet there is a natural counterbalance that happens for those who have lost a loved one which comes in the form of support and acknowledgement of your grief that may have been absent before. There are some seemingly universal truths that are experienced in grief but it can also be profoundly misunderstood.  Some simply cannot comprehend that grief is not something one can “get over.”  Some do understand this and still expect grief to follow predictable paths.  Even those who have experienced grief themselves sometimes believe they understand what grief is for another person. If you have lost someone, you have likely counted the days, weeks, months, and years without your loved one, taken time to mark birthdays and death anniversaries, and felt some sort of obligation to keep that person alive in holiday traditions. These feelings and rituals can linger for many people.

Therefore, with any proximity to grief or if you yourself are grieving, you have undoubtedly seen essays, books, and social media dedicated to allowing space for grief during the holidays. There are reminders that you can and should take time for self care and that you do not have to enjoy the holidays. This is all true.

But what if your journey with grief has diverged a bit? My son died 5 and a half years ago when he was only 10 months old. It was unexpected and traumatic.  He was happy and smiling in the morning and gone that afternoon. In the aftermath, I experienced all those countdowns and marking the passing of time but eventually the ceremony of all that started to hurt me more. I had to let go of keeping every single milestone sacred to care for myself. Today, while things are different and my choices aren’t what they would have been without loss, the holidays really are a joyous experience for me. I love the celebrations, music, and lights. I cherish the family time and traditions so often I end up feeling guilty that I’m not extra sad during this time of year.

It’s a hard position to explain to people. Losing a child at any point is excruciating and even many years later, trying to talk about that time doesn’t just bring up sadness for me. There is a physical crushing pain in my chest.  It is hard to breathe and hard to swallow. The loss was life altering. I have deep wells of patience and grace for others that far exceed any I had before and also some fiery anger, intolerance, and fear that surprise me some days. I am a different person. Different not only because of life lived and lessons learned: different because the loss of my son changed my physical body, my emotional mind, and my soul. I will never be over that day. And yet, I can sometimes feel shame and guilt when people (with the kindest intentions) check in on me during the holidays and I am enjoying the season. In grief, certain times of pain are expected and yet I find the smaller less symbolic moments are when I feel most crippled. Like seeing a brother and sister walking home from school together knowing my daughters will never know their older brother. Or witnessing my older daughter teaching and protecting the younger and feeling so angry that she will never know the care of her older sibling.

The good news is that whatever loss you have experienced, there are multitudes of resources that can help you cope with grief in the minute-by-minute journey of finding how to live with your loss. And it is perfectly normal to experience sadness and stress around the holidays with grief. But despite the universality of grief, it is also deeply personal, so if the holidays are not painful for you, don’t let concern or care from others inject guilt into your experience.  Joy, whenever it happens, does not diminish the love you had or the grief you will always carry. Hold onto the moments of joy you have and know that wherever your grief may take you, you are not alone.

 

Do you have to forgive an abusive parent?

Do you have to forgive an abusive parent?

Many people struggle with healing from an abusive childhood, and when the abuser was a parent, the healing process can be particularly complicated.  Everyone has a unique story and the impact on individuals is affected by many different factors.  The severity, frequency, and tactics of the abuse, and emotional strain on the victim all impact the degree to which people are able to cope with and recover from past trauma.  One area of struggle can revolve around the concept of forgiving your abuser.

Forgiveness is often one our culture’s go-to prescriptions when it comes to dealing with painful incidents that continue to impact our current lives.  These prescriptions may come in the form of religious instructions, moral obligations, and the promise of healing.  While forgiveness may be an important and helpful step in the recovery process, it is important to understand who it is being done for and why.  Otherwise forgiveness itself becomes confusing, complicated, or even meaningless.

At one time in my career I was working as a hospice social worker.  Most of my patients were very elderly, and the majority of them had supportive and loving families who had the comfort and peace of the patient as their priority.  However, occasionally I worked with families where there was significant emotional strain in the relationship between the dying parent and the adult son or daughter, sometimes due to past abuse by the parent.  Needless to say the issues each family was dealing with were unique and there were long and fraught histories involved.  I had some family members who spoke to me about their own process of forgiveness and how it helped them to heal and find their own peace, and I had other families who had no interest in a dramatic reconciliation at the deathbed.  They were tired of being judged for keeping their distance from a formerly abusive parent, and their own healing was better served by strong boundaries and detachment.  Our society loves a Hollywood ending, and popular culture is littered with depictions of those reconciliations.

When I am working with clients to process and heal from childhood abuse, we discuss forgiveness and what it means for their individual recovery process.  Some of the things we have to figure out through that process include knowing who the forgiveness is for (the victim, the abuser, or someone else), how it will or will not facilitate their healing process, and why it is being given.  The answers to those questions help people come to an honest conclusion about whether they want to forgive their abuser, whether it will help at all, and the intentions behind that forgiveness.  I don’t ever tell people that they need to or have to forgive their abuser in order to heal and recover from an abusive childhood.  If people feel forced to take the moral high ground by offering forgiveness to someone who may or may not even be in their life anymore, they may continue to struggle to recover because it feels insincere and obligatory.  However, if that forgiveness is offered for the right reasons and at the right time, it can be an important step towards releasing the control trauma can have over their life and emotional wellness.  The “right reasons and right time” are not for me to decide.  Those decisions need to be made by the individual who is healing from that trauma.

As friends, families, communities, and caregivers, we can place value on forgiveness without making it into an obligation for people who have been abused.  Coping with the emotional labor of processing the abuse inflicted by a parent who is supposed to love and care for you is difficult enough without having social pressure to rush the process and bring it to a convenient and neat conclusion.  Allowing abuse survivors to direct their own recovery and determine why, when, how, and if forgiveness is a part of their healing journey is a more supportive and intentional way to promote recovery.