The Gift of Grief

This entry is dedicated to all who have lost a loved one, and who struggle to regain their Christmas spirit.

Christmas can be a tough time if you lost a loved one during the previous year. Suddenly, someone who was a part of family celebrations and joy is not there. Grief is magnified by Christmas family traditions.

Grief often leads survivors “inward” to pay homage to their emotions, and dwell on how their loss has broken their emotional stability. They focus on their sadness, despondency, frustration, guilt, anger – a literal flood of overwhelming emotions that can devastate the psyche. That’s why an inward focus – while OK in small doses – must not be allowed to dominate your flow of grief.

Fortunately, the holidays provide ample opportunities for an “outward” focus to help aggrieved victims “live through” their grief. Christmas amplifies the need for some parents to inject some magic into the time for their kids, and to try and maintain some financial stability to provide nutritional and shelter needs. Others who have fallen on hard times also need help finding basic necessities. The grief-stricken can reach out in a spirit of empathy, and discover that this outward focus gives them a way to move forward with their grief and honor their departed loved one.

I remember many years ago when a friend of our family suffered a great loss when her son-in-law was killed in an accident several months before Christmas. Her daughter, Jill, now a young widow in her late 20s, came to live with her mom temporarily while both of them sorted out their emotional lives.

My mother invited them to join us for Christmas dinner. Before dinner, my mom handed each of them a wrapped present. Jill was dumbfounded. “But I have no present for you,” she said. “Yes, you do,” my mom replied. “Your presence is our gift.”

I was in college at the time and thought that comment was pretty cool. Years later, however, as I began to reflect on psychology and coping with stress, I saw the comment in a new light.

Giving vs. receiving – we generally separate these actions as quite distinct, but they’re not. When Jill accepted the gift my mom gave her, she gave my mom something very special in return: the “gift” of fulfillment and satisfaction. I think my mom received a gift of feeling part of the family of humanity; mom discovered that helping someone in distress – helping Jill realize that, yes, she is saddened and in pain, but life endures through the pain – offered her the special blessing of receiving by giving. So, looking at Jill and my mom, who gave and who received?

For me, the lesson here is pretty straightforward: Are you in emotional pain – depressed, saddened, hurt, upset, guilty, angry? Focus on what’s “out there” and how you can be a part of it. After all, it’s life out there. Accept and receive from others, and in doing so, you will discover that you are giving, and bringing great honor to the memory of your departed loved one.

Thanks for being a part of this blog. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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