Good Grief: It’s the Little Things That Help Mourners Make It Through the Holidays

christmas_vacation_cover.jpgThere’s one thought running through my head right now as I stare at a blinking cursor on a blank computer document: Why the heck did I take an assignment to write about grieving through the holidays? What was I thinking? Where do I even begin?

In other words, I’m stuck.

For one thing, I’m a quiet, reserved guy–not the type that makes a habit of broadcasting my seasonal sadness across the Internet. Secondly, what makes me any kind of authority on the subject–well, aside from the fact that I still can’t make it through the movie “Christmas Vacation” because it reminds me too much of my dad. He passed away 13 years ago this November.

As it turns out, I’m stuck there too.

Last week a friend directed me to an article about coping with holiday grief in the December 2010 issue of Redbook magazine. In it, writer Meghan O’Rourke, whose mother passed away on Christmas Day 2008, quotes clinical psychologist Therese Rando, author of “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies,” about the odds everyone is up against this time of year: “We have extraordinary expectations of the holidays, culturally–a Norman Rockwell image of family being together. These are unrealistic expectations even if you’re not bereaved.”

After reading through some magazines and searching the Internet, I’m finding that the solution to getting past my emotional block is similar–at least metaphorically–to that of surmounting my literary block (an obstacle I’ve triumphed over many times before): You’ve just got to open yourself up, not force anything, and consciously work through it a bit at a time.

Of course, such vague advice for emotional closure could use more specifics, hopefully something a little more significant than, “Try not to feel bad about feeling bad,” which I actually read in one online piece. (OK, I’m already feeling better about my qualifications for this article.) As you might expect, though, suggestions for healing are as varied as earth’s inhabitants. A coping mechanism that lifts one person’s spirits might send another into a downward spiral.

For example, while some of those who have lost loved ones will want to start new traditions, some will want to adhere strictly to old ones. The common thread that emerges, though, is not to shut down or suppress your emotions.

“It’s healthier to feel the sadness and loss than to detach yourself from it,” says licensed psychologist Susan Apollon, Ph.D., in a Dec. 2 article on the website “It’s right and normal to grieve; just don’t make it the dominant part of who you are.”

The key, it seems, is to make time to embrace the grief. Experience the occasional catharsis. Holding it in is only asking for trouble down the road. “You might even set aside an evening to get in touch with your grief,” Apollon says. “Fix the cocoa you used to drink with your mother or go through your photo albums.”

In the Redbook article, writer O’Rourke discusses baking an apple pie on
Thanksgiving using her late mom’s recipe, feeling “palpably connected
to her.” She recounts the story of another acquaintance who wears her
late mother’s gold charm bracelet to holiday parties and on Christmas

Such simple rituals are what Rondo and Apollon prescribe for getting some sort of handle on the grief, recasting it to allow mourners to eventually find pleasure–and maybe even joy–in the holiday season again.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an appointment with Mr. Clark W. Griswold.

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Doug Brumley

About Doug Brumley

Don’t be too jealous, fellas, but freelance writer and editor Doug Brumley has been paid to play video games, he’s lived and traveled with a popular pop-rock band, he’s worked for an NHL franchise and he brews beer. (You can follow his pursuits of the latter at his blog, A longtime Nashvillian who's passionate about music and film, Doug is also a caring husband and father—unless there’s hockey on TV.

  • Tyler Reed

    Great, heartfelt post! I look forward to more from such a quiet, reserved guy! I hope you enjoy watching your movie.