The holiday season starts with Thanksgiving, and for many, it stirs grief. It makes sense that these feelings would return at this time of year.
One reason for it is that Thanksgiving is only one day each year. Grief is the process of adapting to your life without this person. Maybe you and your ex-spouse had a routine of going to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and gathering things to make a nice, homemade breakfast. There are about 52 Saturdays each year so you have 52 chances to get used to Saturday without your ex. Maybe sometimes you go by yourself, or go with a friend, or don’t go, or visit another market, but in that year, you have many chances to get used to your Saturday life without your ex.
In contrast, you only get one Thanksgiving per year to build a new tradition and way of celebrating without the lost person. With far fewer opportunities, it will be harder to practice and to rebuild. You will try to return to the old ways, which included the lost person, realize that you cannot, feel the loss again.
Along with that limited opportunity to relearn life without the loved other, the holidays are often the only time that we see some some friends and family. The last memory of this person may be from last Christmas, Thanksgiving, or something similar. In many nursing facilities, the census drops substantially around New Years, as residents who held out for one more Christmas with the grandchildren find that they are tired of fighting and holding on and the time has come to leave.
Grief also returns because our expectations change. A family grows apart – children leave the home, build their own families and routines, live elsewhere. During the holidays, we expect the scattered family to reunite in the traditional location. This is when we notice the empty chair, the silent conversation.
While we’re at it, this is a good time to stop using the badly-misunderstood and badly-mangled “5 Stages of Grief.” Really, stop using it.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychologist working with terminally ill patients at the University of Chicago Medical School when she described the five stages of grief, in a book called On Death and Dying, published in 1970. These were the reactions of patients to the news of their terminal diagnoses, and when we consider the stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) in that context then they make sense.
Somehow, since then, the stages have entered the realm of popular culture and been twisted to apply to any situation with an aspect of loss, from disaster to divorce to changing jobs or homes, but the stages were never meant to apply to these situations. There is a better alternative model, the dual process model, that we will cover in the next article, in a few days.