Make Space for Grief This Holiday Season

The year Leo told us he was transgender, I skipped gathering with our extended family for the holidays. It wasn’t that I was trying to avoid them; I was overcome by grief. My Grampa died that year, and it compounded the grief I felt around losing the idea of having a daughter. I didn’t have the mental energy to pretend that I was okay, so I didn’t. I was able to make space for grief by first identifying what was hardest as the holidays approached.

Photo is white boxes with pink numbers and pink boxes with white numbers and springs of greenery, decorated for Christmas. The image is for a blog post titled, "Make Space for Grief This Holiday Season."
Photo by Jan Romero on Unsplash

That year, it was being around my little nieces.

As the oldest of four brothers, it is my greatest joy to have six nieces. I like to joke that God gave me those little girls to make up for all the men in my life. We have tea parties, and Facetime calls. I’ve knit them frilly sweaters and fruit-shaped hats. We’ve played Barbies and My Little Pony and Peppa Pig. Two of my nieces and I write letters back and forth, and one of my nieces and I have a virtual story hour every week. I read her a book, and she reads me a book, and then we catch up on each other’s week and do an art activity or tell jokes for the rest of an hour.

But suddenly, all those nieces were like a slap in the face. A reminder of what I once had, or thought I had, and lost. And I knew I wouldn’t always think that, but my heart was still raw. The idea of being at my in-law’s house and seeing three of those little girls at Christmas was more than I could bear. Especially because they were always so happy to see me. There was no way I was going to be able to fake being happy to see them. I didn’t know how I’d be able to be around them and not cry. I didn’t think it was fair for them or me. So I stayed home.

You don’t have to suffer through an event to make other people happy.

Christmas Eve is a big deal in my husband’s family, and skipping it was a bold move. I felt guilty for not being there. I worried about what his mother would say. My brain ran through the conversations I imagined were happening. When he got home, the first thing my husband said was, “Everyone missed you today.” That made me feel worse. It was at that moment I realized my job wasn’t to manage everyone else’s feelings. The only person I had to worry about was myself.

There are no rules for grieving. Likewise, there are no rules for what to do when your child comes out as transgender, short of loving and supporting them. So what do you do to prepare yourself for the holidays when you aren’t feeling in the mood to celebrate? Take a cue from my friend Kendra Adachi, The Lazy Genius.

Decide what matters.

What’s the most important thing to you this holiday season? Is it getting together with family? How about establishing new traditions? Maybe it’s protecting your peace, whatever that looks like for you. It could be buying new stockings or ornaments. Or perhaps it’s that everyone uses your child’s correct name and pronouns over dinner. And after that, nothing else matters. The year Leo came out, I decided I was okay with skipping everything so long as our little family was together at Christmas. Because I didn’t have to fake it for all those other events, I enjoyed the time we spent together. Pick the thing that matters most, and don’t worry about the rest. Not this year.

Whatever you decide, make sure to make space for grief. Know that there will be times during the holiday season that are going to be harder than others. Some you will be able to anticipate. Others will sneak up on you. If you try to power through the holidays like nothing is wrong, you aren’t going to enjoy them. Not only that, no one else is going to enjoy them either. It’s okay to be sad during a festive time of the year.

You don’t owe it to anyone else to be happy.

Remember though, that it won’t always be this way. That’s not to say that there won’t be other sad holidays. Some years are harder than others. But eventually, the joy will come back. Things that seem overwhelming now will settle down. The pain you feel will ease. And the memories that are breaking your heart will become fond once again.

Make sure to take care of yourself during the next few months. Say no to anything that feels like it will be too much. Remember that you can always opt-out of something you previously said yes to if the day comes and you just can’t manage it. In addition to that, be sure to get enough rest. Grief is mentally and physically exhausting. There’s no shame in going to bed early or napping if you need to. And remember to eat well, stay hydrated, and move your body. You can’t take care of your people if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

What matters the most to you this holiday season? How will you make space for grief?

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