Grief and the Holidays: Finding Strength in Vulnerability

By Brenna Sculley

by Elysian Magazine

As I was snacking on some late-night, post-karaoke pizza with new friends I had made at a conference, the conversation turned from who belted it out the best to what our families were like, where we live, and how we manage life. It had been a fun day. I love meeting new people, making instant connections, and really jumping in to share what we really think of the world.

But sometimes, a question can catch you off guard. A simple sentence that strikes the nerve and suddenly you’re vulnerable, exposed, and reeling.

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving?”

This used to be easy to answer. My family was vibrant. Four daughters and two loving parents living a modern-day Little Women dream. We were each other’s best friends; the doors of our homes were always open, with friends and strangers always finding a place to join us for a meal. Every holiday was filled with laughter, joy, good food, and well-planned fun. Until one day when I was 22, my oldest sister – the one who always knew the right thing to do and always had something up her sleeve to inject even more fun into the day – died at the age of 30 after a sudden and inexplicable stroke.

My family rallied after that and double-downed on fun, living bigger and better in her honor. We started a new tradition and hosted a Christmas party to kick off the season for her December 4th birthday, and we opened our doors to an ever-expanding group of friends and loved ones. We cried, we toasted, we partied, and we loved harder than we even had before.

And yet, life keeps coming at you. A little over five years later, my mom passed away unexpectedly. Another vibrant life, the deepest love you can know in this world, ripped away casually… again.

And so, to answer the simple question of what your holiday plans are can hit you hard. Sometimes I can steel myself and be ready to gloss over my complicated family life. The badly written telenovela of death and sadness that lurks behind every story. I can skip over how being one of four girls has shaped my identity and how losing the rock of my mother has left me unmoored. I can simply say, “I’m headed to my sisters,” because I’m lucky to still have two sisters who I love fiercely, a dad who can do no wrong, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, and new boyfriends, girlfriends, nieces and nephews, and an ever-growing list of loved ones to sit with me at a table and celebrate.

There is a theory of grief that has always helped me process these feelings known as the Ball and the Box Analogy. If you’re an Office fan like me, you may remember the episode where the staff is obsessed with the screensaver that features a ball bouncing from one side of the screen to the other, and they root for it to hit the corner. The size of your grief is like that ball, and the pain you feel is a button alongside the wall. Immediately after tragedy your grief ball is huge and it pushes that button constantly. Now, twelve years after my sister’s death, and six after my mother’s, the balls of my grief are smaller. But when they hit that button on the wall, the pain is the same. Time does heal all wounds in that you learn how you can protect yourself against the pain and know how to gloss over it, but when you get a direct hit, the pain will always be there… and that’s OK.

All of this is to say that on that night after karaoke, I didn’t skip over my holiday pain and shared the feeling of how, even though my family leans on each other hard, and my own children have brought so much joy to all holiday proceedings, and we still eat well, and cheers the nights away, there is always a lingering sadness. With every happy moment, there is a moment of reflection that can make the tears well. And in sharing this with my new friends, I learned they, too, struggle with the holidays in their own ways. We had a deep talk, and now I have two friends and a reminder that you just never know what someone is going through.I hope your tables are filled with joy and love this holiday season, and if you feel that sadness, open yourself to be vulnerable and share that with someone in your life. I bet that person can find you a seat at their table – and likely can share something painful they are working through as well. Together we can beat the holiday blues and focus on the things that really matter… like which Christmas karaoke song is the best.

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