Last week I came across a blog on The Mighty titled “When It’s Not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and it immediately resonated with me. The author talked about how holidays became “one painful struggle after another,” after her father passed away. As much as my heart broke for the author, it felt refreshing to read something so raw and honest – something that doesn’t get talked about very much around the holidays. There is this unspoken (actually, sometimes very bluntly spoken) expectation that people be cheerful and thankful during this season. Sometimes people are well-intentioned and just hate to see us in pain, but other times it can be incredibly invalidating to expect someone to be cheerful when they are struggling with grief and/or mental illness.
Just over two years ago, my mom passed away a couple of weeks after her 49th birthday; it simultaneously feels like it has been an excruciatingly long time without her and yet so raw as if it only happened yesterday. Needless to say, losing her turned my entire world upside down. Even now, more days than not are a struggle. The holiday season in particular is a difficult time, especially because my mom was one of the most festive and spirited people I knew. She had no qualms about wearing retro Christmas sweaters, reindeer antlers or a Santa hat, topped off with her necklace of mini Christmas tree lights – I kid you not, they actually had battery power so that they could light up. Even at 20 years old (unbeknownst to me at the time, this would be my last Christmas with her) I had presents under the tree that were marked “Love, Santa.” When my older siblings started having kids, it became tradition that on Christmas Eve “Mrs. Claus” would drop off a sac at our back door, the kids would open it and find movies for each of them and new pyjamas for all of us. In recent years we would sponsor a local family in need, and go shopping for them so that they had presents to open on Christmas day. Without typing a novel, I think it suffices to say that my mom made the holidays incredibly special.
While it’s amazing to have these memories, it’s also a painful reminder of what we have lost and a realization that no holiday will ever be the same. Unfortunately, I often feel guilty or ungrateful for saying/feeling that way. A large part of that comes from explicitly being told by others that I should be thankful for all that I still have and the memories that I am lucky enough to possess. My problem with this is that being thankful for all that I do have does not discredit the fact that I also have a nagging, gaping emptiness. Likewise, grieving or struggling with depression does not mean that I am ungrateful for the blessings that are in my life.
I think it’s important for people to keep this in mind over the holidays, and also in general: just because someone is struggling, with whatever it may be, does not mean they aren’t thankful. Instead of suggesting they look at the bright side or to be grateful, try to validate their pain and see if there is anything you can do to make the next few weeks a little more bearable for them.
Ps: Here is the blog from The Mighty that I mentioned and I highly recommend you read and share it.
Here’s to hoping you get through the holidays okay and remember that you are not alone!