My father died when he was just 29. He suffered a concussion after falling from a ladder while doing construction work near our apartment in the projects of Queens, New York. He was only in the hospital for a short time before dying. This was 1997; his death left my brother and me without a father, and my mother without the love of her life.
I was only two years old, and though I couldn’t yet say the word “dad,” I spent the next 20 years of my life wondering what it would have been like to have the chance to say it just once, to feel the weight of it on my tongue. The yearning left me searching for him in different men I met, in poems I wrote, in food I ate either way too much or too little of, and even in myself on those days when I felt completely despondent. It wasn’t until I got to college that I began seeing a therapist regularly—something I continue to do today.
My father was born in December and died in November, which makes the holiday season exceptionally difficult for me and my family. While we often reminisce about happier memories we shared with him, we rarely ever discuss his death and the amount of pain it continues to cause us. Some years, that elephant in the room is tiny like a pea. Other years, especially this one which marks the 20th anniversary of his death, the elephant is life-size, taking up all the space in the room, suffocating us all.
Experiencing immense feelings of grief and loneliness during the holiday season, a season that is supposed to spread cheer and encourage quality time with loved ones, can be confusing. But after speaking to Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin, a professor in education and counseling and researcher at Bradley University, and Dr. Pilar Jennings, a psychoanalyst, I learned that my feelings of increased grief, confusion, and shame are not out of the ordinary.
“If you’ve had exciting memories related to the holidays as a child, you are likely to look forward to the holidays,” Russell-Chapin tells me. “If you have horrible memories related to the holidays, you probably don’t look forward to them. We need to practice anamnesis, which is taking the best of our past with us and leaving the bad parts behind us.”
Jennings adds that the “holiday season is a time ripe for fantasy. Whether or not we’ve had the good fortune to have a close and loving family, there’s invariably a part of us that longs for this—a sense of belonging, of having people we love and are loved by, and the trust that our most important bonds are sustainable. For this reason, the holidays for many people have a slightly haunting quality.”
She adds, “This fantasy is, of course, reinforced by a culture that inundates us with images of happy and beautiful families coming together, giving each other exactly what’s needed and wanted and enjoying a closeness readily offered. The implicit message is that this is normal. What a bind for folks who, simply by nature of being human, have experienced many difficulties and challenges within their families, some of them insoluble.”
“This gap,” she continues, “between what most cultures propose as normative and what so many people actually experience, can feel both depressing and shameful. And if the gap is subtle—say a family is basically loving and kind—even this can be cause for shame. A person blessed to have such a family might suffer feelings of ingratitude when they are bothered by the subtle complexities that invariably show up during any family gathering.”
Everyone deals with suffering differently. Throughout my early to late adolescence, I isolated myself from family and friends in order to better keep my anger and sadness at bay, careful not to infect others with my venom-like pain. But being alone isn’t always a viable solution, even if it makes you feel better. “It’s tough to be social when you’re feeling devastated,” says Russell-Chapin. “But it’s critically important that people suffering from severe loss have various forms of non-judgmental care and support. This can include friends who bring food and other necessities, colleagues who can step in to manage work responsibilities or commitments, and clinicians who can help begin a process of working through and eventually recovering from the loss.”
But Jennings adds that if you find being around others to be overwhelming, there are productive ways you can cope in solitude: “If you’re feeling too raw to risk human contact, find a good podcast and some guided meditations to help you feel a sense of comfort. Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, and many other spiritual teachers have excellent talks and meditations online that will help your nervous system begin to decompress. Even a simple five-minute mindfulness meditation might just help you feel a little less broken, more contained, and, even if for just a few minutes, at peace.”
For those suffering from a traumatic loss, Jennings advises seeing a therapist. “While meditation and yoga will help, if you’re going through a serious loss—a child, or parent, or any shocking death of a loved one—clinical support is needed. Psychotherapy can be a way to feel heard without having to worry if what you’re talking about is too much for others to hear. A good therapist will be able to listen with an open mind and heart to whatever you’re experiencing, and may also be able to help you begin to digest and eventually accept what’s happened.”
But regardless of the magnitude of the loss you have suffered, the most important part of all is to remember to take all the time you need. When I was growing up, many people told me I was “lucky” to have lost my father at an age where I hadn’t yet built memories with him, and for a long time, I believed it. I thought I was stupid for feeling so much pain over someone I barely knew; I began to harbor an intense amount of shame for feeling remotely sad about anything. This silencing caused me to crawl inside myself instead of reach out for help when I needed it the most.
The bottom line is that, regardless of age, intimacy, or experience, loss is loss. It changes you, breaks you, haunts you, sometimes for the rest of your life. That idea, albeit scary, can very well be the first step towards acceptance and coping.
“Grief and mourning are complicated feelings, and they take time. No one who has ever suffered a serious loss recovers quickly,” says Jennings. “We, humans, have an extraordinary capacity to love, and when we lose our loved ones, it can feel like we’ve lost a part of ourselves. Our very sense of self is likely to feel radically altered. Getting to know ourselves without our beloved is not a fast process. And the intense feelings that come with loss will require plenty of time to be survived and understood. If by the second or third year you’re still feeling awful and torn apart, it’s okay.”
And you will be okay.