On any given Thanksgiving or Christmas, I find myself in the company of good people, with good food, all the trimmings and an occasional gift or two. Joshua and I have extended family that we see throughout the year. When we are without family on a holiday, we typically join a friend’s celebration.
I’m not usually by myself during the holidays, at least not in the literal sense. And yet, there are not enough people in the world to cram around a holiday table that would make me not feel - at times - completely alone.
The busyness of a full social calendar, coupled with the busyness of work and the busyness of service have kept my mind and heart at ease for many holiday seasons past. I never had much time, or interest, in reflecting on the deeper implications of a time of year designed with precisely one thing in mind: a family. A unit of people who - by birth or choice - have banded together. I am typically determined just to enjoy it, fly through it - and not think about it too much.
This will be the first holiday season that I allow myself to mourn the loss of my own family, to acknowledge the aching hole left by their absence. I had a safe, happy, somewhat charmed childhood that was ripped apart by murder, suicide, divorce, abandonment and abuse over the course of eleven years (college age up until about six years ago). The family I grew up with is gone.
There is other family now, friends, my husband’s family, extended family. People I’m so blessed to have in my life. But I will no longer attempt to convince myself that the immediate family I grew up with and spent holidays with could ever be replaced. They can’t.
I will not compare my suffering to others this year. I won’t deny my feelings about my family because “at least I had one growing up.” I won’t deny my feelings because “at least I have other friends and family to spend time with now.” I won’t deny my feelings because “at least we have food on the table.”
This year, I will sit in the dark with my hurt and let the tears roll down my cheeks and do what I should’ve done years ago - mourn. Let my heart have its ache, let my soul cry out in pain, and let myself grieve.
Because the typical advice for those who are alone or hurting during the holidays is:
compile a list of things you are grateful for!
go out and volunteer!
take a walk in a beautiful park!
It’s a good list and I’ll be doing all of it. But I will also be adding:
letting myself mourn
letting myself remember
letting myself not be totally okay
Gratitude, service and beauty are important because they pry our hearts open and keep them soft. They keep us moving, unstuck from our past, pushing forward, staying receptive to love and spreading it to others. Choosing gratitude, service and beauty means choosing the light, not staying in the dark forever.
The list I’m adding to it though, means also taking the time to acknowledge and to recognize the pain. It means instead of merely stuffing that aching hole full of other people, numbing it with gratitude and service, or distracting it with beauty, I’m committed to acknowledging it, listening to it and healing it.
Because to ignore the existence of the heartache and the family that once was here and now is not - or a family unit that was never a reality, or just the general ache of belonging that really most of us all feel from time to time - is not paying due respect, and it’s not healthy.
This holiday season, I think there is room for both - both mourning and gratitude. Both the good, happy feelings and joy-spreading of the holidays, and the painful, dynamic, family-shaped hole that is found in so many of our hearts.
Whether you’ll celebrate at home, abroad, alone, with others - or with others while feeling alone - I’m wishing you a very happy holiday season. May this be the year that you find a little healing and peace for your heart, nestled among the glittering lights and holiday cheer.