Grief During the Holidays
If you knew my dad, you knew just how massive his personality was. He really was the life of a party — loud, funny and just a blast to be around. So we all deeply feel the deficit of his presence during family holiday gatherings.
For me personally, creating new traditions and changing locations during the holidays helped ease some of the pain. We hosted Thanksgiving in our home this year and while we still felt the absence of dad, I also felt relief sitting at a new table together — one that didn’t include an empty seat silently marked as “dad’s chair.”
Dad always said the blessing in our family too so we’ve missed that a lot. Thankfully, I had the foresight to record him saying the blessing before he got too sick. We all braced ourselves at Thanksgiving when I played the recording for our first holiday meal without him. To everyone’s surprise, there was immense comfort in hearing dad bless our food and it was a beautiful way to include him in our gathering.
Grief With Kids is Hard
The other day Thomas found a shirt that was too small for him to wear anymore and declared it was time for the shirt to “pass away.”
Grief has forced us to have a lot of hard conversations with our kids about life and death — and there is no manual for how to do this. We’ve fielded an insane amount of difficult questions and wiped away many tears after explaining Grandpa is having so much fun in Heaven with Charlie that he is going to stay up there.
Every child experiences grief differently, but a few things that have helped our kids over the past year:
- Books: There are two books that we’ve really loved for helping our kids process loss — The Invisible String and Grandad’s Island.
- The Red Bird: A few readers immediately reached out to me after my dad passed to share the meaning of the cardinal bird. A cardinal spotting is a reminder of your loved one who has passed and often shows up when you need or miss them. I’m not going to lie, I immediately dismissed this idea at first. And then a few days after dad’s memorial service I was looking out of my kitchen window while doing dishes in a very fragile state — and there it was, a red bird. In fact, there were two of them. With fresh wounds from his passing, the appearance of the red bird served as a God Wink to me. I so desperately needed that little “message of hello from heaven” (which I’m convinced was a wink from both my dad and mom together). I decided to share the red bird with my kids and it brings us all immense joy when they spot one and get excited and shout “Grandpa says hello!!!” And you know what? We see red birds everywhere now.
- Balloon Release: The kids really loved sending balloons up to Heaven on dad’s birthday.
- Recordable Storybook: During our last Christmas with dad, he and mom surprised each of us with a copy of The Night Before Christmas, a recordable story book read by dad. This has been such a gift to us that we will treasure forever.
Grief Taught Us New Ways To Show Up for Others During Crisis
Grief is deeply personal so it can be difficult to know when to send a card and when to show up with a casserole. For me, I prefer to cry alone in the shower or in the car on the way to work instead of on someone’s shoulder. However, I couldn’t have predicted just how beautifully people would show up for us in ways we didn’t even know we needed. When you’re grieving, people want to help but often don’t know how. In the weeks that followed my dad’s passing, I was so physically run down and stressed out that it was impossible to think clearly enough to ask for help with laundry, or feeding my family, or stocking items I didn’t care we were out of.
Here is just a sampling of ways people in our lives showed up that blew us away and we have since passed on to others:
- Send flowers — on delay. Our home was filled with the most gorgeous flower arrangements in the days that followed my dad’s passing. I love flowers so each arrangement felt like a hug. However, it wasn’t until months after the last arrangement had been tossed in the trash that we received a potted peony bush on door step. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as the reality of our new life without dad was just starting to sink in and people were checking in less and less. The thought had never occurred to me until this experience to calendar flowers on delay — one month out, one year out, or on occasions you know will be difficult like their birthday, Father’s Day, the anniversary of their passing, etc.
- Stocking our home. I will never forget the surprise we returned home to after saying our last goodbye to dad and making the grueling drive back from Florida. We were physically and emotionally exhausted. When we arrived home we discovered a group of my close girlfriends had been in our home just a few hours earlier to stock our fridge and our pantry with food for the week. They had also left wine, flowers and dinner for that night. Talk about ugly tears.
- Play Dates. We were very fortunate to have friends offer to come grab our kids for play dates during those first few weeks. This was such a blessing and gave them a sense of normalcy during such a difficult time.
- Uber Eats Gift Card. We received a generous gift card for Uber Eats from my Supper Club girls for when we ran out of frozen lasagnas. And I cannot tell you how helpful that was. It was in the weeks and months that followed that I would have a particularly hard day and pulling a meal together for my family felt impossible.
- Holding the space. I honestly had no clue how to “hold the space” for my grieving friends until someone did it for me. Everyone grieves so differently that you never know if you should bring it up or avoid the depressing topic when you’re together. “How are you doing?” can be an awkward question to answer, and almost always my response would be “Hanging in there. Thank you for asking.” However, I noticed that one of my friends would ask it a bit differently with “How are you feeling today…since your dad passed away?”…and then hold the space. She wouldn’t rush past the awkwardness to the next conversation. She would let the silence simmer just to see if I needed to talk about it or not. And most of the time, I did want to talk about it but it’s hard to know when it’s appropriate to really unload. Holding the space and offering a more direct question may not work for everyone, but for me it has been really helpful.
The Pain Gets Easier to Carry
After dad passed away, I became a member of a club that no one wants to join — the “I’ve Lost a Parent Club.” Many of you already in this club reached out with big virtual hugs, shared your experience and every single club member said “I promise the pain becomes easier to manage with time.” I didn’t believe them. But one year later, I’m starting to understand. And I do believe there will be a day when his birthday is more powerful than the day that we lost him.
Several of you also shared the ball in a box analogy with me. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it was advice from a therapist that went viral a few years ago and goes like this…
The Ball In A Box
There’s a box with a ball in it. And a pain button.In the beginning, the ball is huge. You can’t move the box without hitting the pain button. It rattles around on it’s own in there and hits the pain button over and over again. You can’t control it. It just keeps hurting. Sometimes it seems unrelenting. Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less and less but when it does, it hurts just as much. It’s easier because you can function day to day more easily. But the downside is that the ball randomly hits that button when you least expect it.
For most people, the ball never goes away. It might hit less and less and you have more time to recover between hits, unlike when the ball is still huge.
God Doesn’t Waste Your Pain
This isn’t a lesson I learned right away and for many of you it may be too difficult to consider God’s purpose in our suffering — especially when the wounds are fresh and you are dealing with the unthinkable hurt. And please hear me, I am not saying “everything happens for a reason!” I am definitely, definitely not saying that.
With suffering came a morbid but helpful perspective that my life is moving fast and this earth is not my home. Pain has set me on a different course in many ways and is helping me become exactly who I am meant to be. Through this experience, Matt and I have been forced to have difficult conversations. We have reassessed life in many ways and count our current blessings more than ever. My siblings and I say “I love you” more often and squeeze each other a little tighter. We have prioritized family time. We have learned how to be better friends to those grieving. I’ve learned to practice more kindness, judge less, and am more empathetic to strangers because you never know who is grieving next to you in the cereal aisle.
*ball in a box printable version below for sharing with others or keeping somewhere handy for yourself.