How to Navigate Pain and Loss This Christmas
- September Vaudrey Author of Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss
- 2017 8 Dec
Speed Bumps, Potholes, and the Art of Pre-Grieving
I’ll never forget the first Christmas after our middle daughter, Katie, 19, died from a ruptured cerebral aneurism. She’d been driving to her summer job. Now she was gone, and as the holidays approached, our family was numb with shock and heartbreak. All the rich memories of Christmases past, family traditions, and holiday celebrations we faced now reminded us of her, and of what we lost.
Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you’re navigating your first December after the loss of a loved one, a marriage, a relationship, or a dream. It’s been ten years since we lost our daughter, and I won’t kid you: This time of year is still hard. But I’ve learned some tricks along the way—and I share them in hopes that they’ll help you this December.
Trick #1: Identify your speed bumps
From today to January 2, use your calendar as the roadmap for your journey. Think through every square in December: What tradition, event, or holiday will each hold? Which ones will be especially hard? The hardest ones are your emotional speed bumps.
Speed Bump: a foreseeable challenge
We spot real-life speed bumps while driving because they’re clearly marked, and we slow down to avoid causing damage. The same is true for emotional speed bumps. We spot them coming on our calendars—and we must slow down or risk damage.
My holiday speed bumps include decorating the tree, hanging Katie’s stocking, and saying grace over our Christmas meal. (When we gather around the table, Katie’s absence is especially glaring.) Each of these is visible on my calendar. They’re challenging, but I can see them coming.
What are your speed bumps? Maybe for you it’s lighting Hanukkah candles; baking Grandma’s cookie recipe; or putting up the Christmas lights (a chore your ex-husband always did). Maybe it’s attending a family gathering after your miscarriage—and facing questions about when you will start a family. Sometimes an event is a speed bump because of its timing: you must show emotionally for someone else; bring your “A Game” at work; or be with people who don’t know about your loss.
Think of these speed bumps as pieces of your loss that deserve to be grieved individually. Trick #1 is to identify those speed bumps you can see coming, so you can make plans to grieve them, one piece at a time.
- Action step: Mark the most challenging speed bumps on your calendar.
Trick #2: Pre-grieve your speed bumps
Once you’ve marked your foreseeable speed bumps in your calendar, set aside time a few days before, to “pre-grieve” each one. Hint: You don’t need to grieve each event on its actual day. You can cheat! Just move your chance to grieve that piece of your loss to a day that’s convenient.
Pre-grieving takes the edge off your pain. Like letting steam out of a pressure cooker, it keeps things from boiling over. Then when the actual day or event arrives, it’s easier to navigate because you’ve already given your loss the space and dignity it deserves.
Pre-grieving: Grieving a piece of your loss ahead of time, so you can be more present and together when the actual hard day or event arrives
Pre-grieving is a tool you can use year-round. When my first Mother’s Day without Katie fell on the same day as the college graduation of her big sister, Bethany, I didn’t want to detract from Bethany’s big day—but I feared I’d be a mess, so I pre-grieved: Three days before graduation, my friend Kaye and I planted flowers at the crash site of Katie’s accident, then we went for a hike, and Kaye listened while I processed my loss. We prayed together, and we wept.
The pre-grieving worked its magic. It took the edge off my Katie-less Mother’s Day. When Bethany walked across that stage at graduation, the day was about her—as it should be—and not about my Mother’s Day grief.
Here are some tips for successful pre-grieving:
DAY: Protect a convenient day on your calendar, a few days before the actual event.
TIME: Give yourself at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time.
LOCATION: Choose a place that feeds your soul—a favorite room, a trail you like to walk, or a comfy chair—somewhere you can cry if need be.
WORDS: Put words to your loss. Verbal processor? Invite a friend to join you. Internal processor? Write out your thoughts. Person of faith? Tell God how you really feel. Creative? Make something that represents this piece of your loss.
- Action step: Plan when and how you’ll pre-grieve each speed bump.
Trick #3: Navigate your potholes.
No matter how carefully we navigate our speed bumps, we’ll also hit a few potholes along the way.
Pothole: An unforeseeable challenge
An emotional pothole is an unforeseeable challenge you hit—and don’t react well to. Perhaps you start crying at work, unexpectedly. Or you make a scene when your ex brings his new girlfriend to your son’s Christmas program. Or you snap at your grandma when she gives you a pair of knit booties for the baby you just miscarried.
The first Thanksgiving after Katie died, I burst into tears in front of the grocery-store checker. I was buying a can of yams that reminded me of cooking with Katie—and I started blubbering incoherently. Awkward. Other potholes have been more damaging—like when I put unfair expectations on my family about how they should grieve an approaching speed bump.
Potholes happen. If you hit one, pull over, check for damage—to others and to yourself—and make repairs. Most people respond graciously when you apologize for a poorly handled pothole. They know this is a hard time.
- Action step: When you hit a pothole, pull over, check for damage, and make repairs before moving on.
It’s a hard time of year to be hurting. You can’t erase the uninvited loss that came your way, but you can choose to navigate December by grieving with intentionality. You’ll finish the year a little wiser—and a little further along your grief journey. You may just spot glimmers of hope in 2018—and reclaim bits of your joy along the way.
September Vaudrey (septembervaudrey.com) is a writer and curriculum developer in the pastoral response department at Willow Creek Church in Barrington Ill., where she also teaches in workshops on parenting, grief/loss, and marital restoration. September and her husband, Scott, have been married for almost 34 years and have five grown children and three grandkids. She is the author of Colors of Goodbye: A memoir of holding on, letting go, and reclaiming joy in the wake of loss.
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