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Embracing the Paradox of Grief and Joy This Holiday Season
Three resources that have helped me through many deaths of loved-ones
As we quickly approach Thanksgiving, many of my friends and family are experiencing heavy hearts, remembering people they loved who are no longer around the family table. Some losses are painfully recent, others are older, but still bring tears and burning hearts. As professionals, we can become good at being tough and compartmentalizing. But in our personal lives, the toughness and compartmentalization can make it difficult to process and heal our own grief and be with others in theirs.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning about grief healing (and still am!). Over a decade ago, my mother died after a long battle with illness; her sister, a favorite aunt, died a few days later. I became pregnant with my second child a few months after that and had a major work setback all in the same year. It was a grief storm. A few years after that, another favorite Aunt whom I nursed lovingly died after her long battle with memory loss. It felt like loss after loss while I was barreling through my achievement-oriented life, trying to ‘be normal.’ This year alone, I’ve been to five funerals. Below are a few lessons I’ve learned and resources that have helped.
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Accept that grief can go on and on - In the US, we often have a funeral soon after a death. The world ‘gets back to normal’, and sometimes we feel like we should be moving on too. But in my experience, grief can last a long, long time. I still think of my mom many times a week, sometimes with joy, sometimes with sadness. In one of my Jewish friend’s traditions, there was a second event one year after the death called “the ending of the FIRST period of grief.” For me, it was so helpful to have a mental model validating that my intense grief after a long time was still okay. Similarly, every Easter, even a decade later, I still experience the grief and loss of my mom and the times we had and could still be having. Equally, when I read about “the stages of grief,” I kept wanting them to be linear, where I ‘graduated’ from one and ‘achieved’ the next level. But I found they were circular and came back around, at times unexpectedly.
Accept that two opposites can be true at once - One of the books that most helped me through my grief journey was “The Grief Recovery Handbook” by John W. James and Russell Friedman. One profound aspect for me was that grief peace includes accepting all of the dichotomies. Your loved one might have been incredibly difficult, AND you might love them so much. After a death, one often tries to ‘decide’ how to think about the past, often wanting to ‘decide’ if things or people were good or bad. But both existed at the same time and can be accepted at the same time in memories and grief. This acceptance helps you get past the cataloging of experiences and into the feelings in your heart.
Embrace Emotional Ambiguity - It's possible to feel deep sadness for what or who we've lost while also experiencing moments of genuine happiness, especially during the holidays. I found that not only would I vacillate, sometimes in an instant between profound sadness and a moment of joy or laughter, but then I’d also feel guilty for my happiness. Through my journey, I learned about accepting and embracing this emotional ambiguity. It’s okay to feel happy about the holiday festivities 'and' sad about the absence of a loved one. Recognizing the spectrum of emotions, from joy to sadness and good to bad, often simultaneously can lead to a more authentic and fulfilling holiday experience
4. Practice Mindfulness and Present Moment Awareness
The Grief Recovery Handbook, dialectic behavioral theory, somatic therapy, meditation, and almost all healing practices I pursued on my journey came back to mindfulness and present-moment awareness. Experiencing our current moment, the feelings in our body, accepting and watching them versus reacting without intention all contribute to processing our grief and acting with thoughtfulness. It’s easy to be triggered into anger, irritation, sadness, and insensitivity to others when you’re deep in your own grief. Mindfulness, especially during the holidays, can help us get through difficult experiences, acknowledge and respect our emotions, and be our best selves through the highs and lows. One of my favorite podcasts for grief:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
— Viktor E. Frankl
5. It’s not about DO-ing, it’s about BE-ing
Finally, as go-getting business people, it can be appealing to GET SHIT DONE. Focusing on the perfect food, decorations, activities…. helping aging parents with logistics of bills, appointments, to-do lists…. DO-ing, for successful business people can be much easier than BE-ing. But in end-of-life care, or being with others in their grief, it’s much more about just BE-ing with them instead of DO-ing all of the things. I find BE-ing incredibly difficult. I want to fix the situation; I want to complete the tasks. But there is no way to fix grief. We can just offer love, support, togetherness, non-judgment, a listening ear, a cup of tea. Words can sometimes be isolating (or infuriating): “it all happens for a reason” can hurt when the death of a loved one is recent, even if you believe it. Words that try to “talk you out of” your grief or “make it better” can feel empty and uninformed. Listening, being together, accepting, and loving are among the greatest gifts you can give others who are grieving (and yourself).
In the fast-paced world of business, leaders are often hard on themselves, striving for perfection and control. In grief, that approach doesn’t work so well. This holiday season, give yourself permission to feel your emotions fully, understanding that they are valid and normal. Recognize that self-care is not a luxury but a necessity, especially during emotionally challenging times. And process some of your grief by BE-ing with others, allowing them to feel their grief is supported and accepted. This approach not only helps in personal healing but also sets a powerful example of emotional intelligence and resilience for our teams and families.
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