Holidays, as you know, can suck for the grieving because they’re a harsh and festive reminder of the ones who aren’t here to hang a stocking or light the menorah. Since becoming a widow and a reluctant but proud member of the grief community, schmaltzy holiday movies have become my escapist lifeline. Seriously, just inject that tinsel straight into my veins. I’m always eager to lose myself in fictional Vermont towns that are really in Canada, with pleasantly bland people saved by love and Christmas cookies. They’re bright, upbeat and almost nobody dies (and if they do, they have the good manners to do so off camera so they don’t screw up all the goodwill).
These COVID-infected holidays in 2020, however, provide a conundrum. This absolute crap fest nightmare of a year has made us more in need of an escape than ever, yet it insists on being inescapable. Even the holiday movies hit differently, what with their shiny, mask-less people who get to travel, hug their grandmas without risking their lives and judge the Apple Valley Christmas Cookie Pageant all crowded into the cozy town square and not worry about being six feet apart. It’s hard not to want to punch them or at least rip the arms off all the gingerbread men, just to be petty.
But in a weird way, I think the veteran griefy among us – and yes, griefy is now a word because I say so – might have a slight advantage coming into this hard holiday. And that’s because we’re used to hard. We’re done separation, trying to smile through painful memories and a future forever without our person, or people. And when we can, we show up anyway.
But now all of us are in mourning. Mourning loved ones lost to COVID but also mourning the living that COVID is keeping us from. There won’t be big holiday parties – at least, there shouldn’t be – or giant family dinners and trips to see the aforementioned grandmas we’re trying not to kill. AND IT SUCKS.
In a weird way, I think the veteran griefy among us – and yes, griefy is now a word because I say so – might have a slight advantage coming into this hard holiday. And that’s because we’re used to hard.
For me, these holidays hold both the usual pain of having them without my late husband, Scott. whose ornaments he gifted our then-toddler son are still a bittersweet reindeer-festooned gut punch, but also an ironic twist. After years of having to fly from Florida to Maryland to see our families, my son, mother and I are now living within a half-hour’s drive of almost everyone we love, but because of COVID we still barely see most of them. Again, with the sucking.
I think the only thing that’s getting me through this looming season –besides my Amazon account, those cheesy holiday movies and my mostly-delightful child – is the knowledge that we’re all going through this awful thing together. Not that I would wish grief and loss on anyone, because nobody wants this life. What I mean is that everybody’s weary. Everyone’s sad, and tired, and maybe a little scared. And in the words of Auntie Mame, the kind of brassy broad I’ve always aspired to be, we need a little Christmas. Or Hanukkah or Kwanza or Solstice. RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE.
But here’s the thing about holiday grief – it’s yours. You don’t have to be festive if you don’t want to be – I met a recent widow this year who admitted that COVID isolation had actually provided an unexpected respite from having to do anything, go anywhere or deal with anything that would be a harsh reminder of his late wife, and he didn’t have to apologize for it. It’s OK to be sad, to feel a little hopeless, to both need your family desperately and also not feel bad for not knowing quite what to say to anybody. To want to hang holly and also want to curse out Rudolph the Reindeer for being such a pushover. All of the things are appropriate.
I always tell people that there are no rules to this, no scorecard, no Official Grief Council who gets to judge you.
I always tell people that there are no rules to this, no scorecard, no Official Grief Council who gets to judge you. The best advice I can give you is to do what feels right. Eagerly join that holiday Zoom with your cross-country relatives or just pop in for a second so your mom isn’t mad, and then go back to bingeing “The Crown.” Make a gourmet meal just for your household since you can’t go to Grandma’s, or order pizza and tape an ornament to the box. Or don’t. It’s OK if it sucks. But know that there are more people than ever out there, like you, who get it. We are physically more isolated than we ever have been. But in the weirdest way, we are not alone.
And that feels strangely peaceful.
Leslie is the author of ‘Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title” (Little, Brown and Co., March 2020). She is also a Modern Loss contributing editor.