Every year around this time, when others are rushing around making merry, I start to panic. But not for the reasons others might. I’m not worried about getting those holiday houseguests to leave, or prepping for New Year’s parties, or even finishing up the Christmas cards I never managed to send out. I’m worried about getting through the last week of the year without collapsing under the emotional weight of grief.
The winter holidays are hard for me, as they are for so many others who, like me, have lost a loved one, especially if those deaths occurred on or around a holiday. My 7-year-old son Christopher died on New Year’s Eve. It’s been 27 years, but parties and noisemakers and fireworks still make me want to hide.
In the past, I’d feel a flood of relief on the morning of New Year’s Day itself. That’s when I celebrated. I had made it through another holiday gauntlet. This past New Year’s Day, though, I spent in the emergency room with my mother for what would turn out to be the beginning of her final weeks. This was my first Christmas without her. The weight of her absence sometimes makes it hard to breathe.
As we muddle through our second pandemic holiday season, many more of us have reasons not to celebrate. We have lost people we love, both to COVID and because of COVID. We have lost jobs and homes and relationships. People who had their hearts set on gatherings or travel suddenly postponed plans in the face of the omicron surge. Around me, hospitals are bracing for new waves of patients. Grief counselors expect cases of complicated grief, now known as prolonged grief disorder, to skyrocket. This is grief that doesn’t lift easily or resolve readily on its own. It is essentially to grief what long COVID is to COVID.
Those who have suffered traumatic losses, including the death of a loved one by violence or the loss of a child — or, in the case of COVID, those who could not be with their loved ones when they died — are more likely to experience complicated grieving. I did not know such a thing had a name when my son died. It wasn’t until many years later that I recognized my pattern of isolating myself in the years after his death fit the textbook pattern of complicated grief. It took time, but I eventually found a path forward.
Still, when the winter celebrations start, I have to resist the urge to crawl back in my cave. I have learned a few things over the years, though, about getting through the holidays.
The ‘Joy of Missing Out’
Deaths and other losses reconfigure our worlds. They disrupt every aspect of our lives, but it often feels most acute during the holidays when it seems as though everyone else is celebrating with their loved ones. Traditions we once shared with our own can trigger pain instead of joy. Rather than trying to pretend they don’t, there is some comfort in doing things differently.
Sometimes I ignore the holidays altogether. I was delighted to discover that there’s a name for this: JOMO, or the Joy of Missing Out. I feel a certain solidarity with others who have decided to do less, sparkle less, buy less, make less, stress less. And the paradox, or perhaps miracle, of the holidays is that it’s that very empty space that lets some form of holiday spirit shine in.
Over the years, friends and family have stepped into my empty places, finding ways to celebrate with me that I could tolerate. I look forward to my annual after-Christmas gathering with two of my closest friends. We catch up on the year that was and talk about the year ahead.
Before the pandemic, I would sometimes go tango dancing on New Year’s Eve. Argentine tango music, with its underlying ache and lyrics that embrace all the complex joys and sorrows of life, felt exactly right on this night. Though I mostly didn’t understand the words, I understood the music and moving to it was a comfort, as was wrapping myself in the warmth of a tango embrace.
The power of new traditions
Not trying to make things to go back to the way they were is my new tradition.
I used to decorate elaborate trees, sometimes more than one. I used to bake gingerbread houses and host holiday dinners for family and friends. Things are simpler now.
One of my last memories of my son, who was deaf, is of him playing Santa Claus in his first grade school play. He was thrilled to get the part and came home, eyes shining, signing excitedly about the cotton-ball beard he’d made for his costume. We made our Christmas presents later that week, rolling candles out of sheets of beeswax and pressing them in glitter, the way I had done with my mom as a child. I still light beeswax candles on winter nights. They glow like little lanterns in the dark, shining the love of my son and my mother back at me.
After my mother died, I took in her cat, Maisie. She came with a little bell on her collar and my days of remote work are now accompanied by her tinkling as she moves about the house. The sound makes me smile. It’s all the “Jingle Bells” I need. Every time I hear Maisie, I think about my mom and how much she loved the holidays. It, too, is a form of comfort.
Other traditions have helped me, as well. Some years, I buy a present for my son and donate it to a gift drive. It lets him grow up in my imagination. I plant paperwhite bulbs in bowls for friends. Sometimes I tell them the story of the first bowl I ever tried to plant, how Christopher had picked its only blossom and presented it to me. “Surprise!” he’d signed, swirling his hand in front of his face to add the sign for beautiful. Sometimes I don’t tell the story. What matters is that I know it and it makes me happy.
And always, if I pay attention, the holidays bring unexpected gifts. This year, snow fell in Seattle the day after Christmas, quieting the whole city. I watched the snow drift outside my living room and remembered teaching my son to make snow angels. I could hear him laughing as he fluttered his hands in front of his face, making the sign for snow, one of his first words. Somehow, in the silence, I could hear the voices of my loved ones more clearly in my memory.
A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine, who has lost a child of her own, signed off an email to me with these words: “I hope you have a gentle holiday.”
Yes, I thought. This. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. It’s the best New Year’s resolution we can make.
Carol Smith is the author of “Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life, A Memoir.”
A version of this article was also published at Psychology Today.