Holiday Grief

I have grieved well for a long time. I write about grief. I understand the purpose and paths of grief better than most. I am rational and physically and mentally healthy.

Certain holidays and annual events have challenges and negative physical and emotional effects on me that I have repeatedly failed to immediately attribute to grief. Christmas is one of those holidays.

Our general perception of grief is one of injury or affliction, something to be healed or eliminated. We go to war against grief, really against the Universe for bringing this loss to our lives. As we incorporate grief into the rest of our lives, we can come to feel that we have overcome the emotions and crushing pain of early grief. We grow around the loss, we somehow become bigger and better able to not feel the emptiness of that hole.

We shared Christmas as a joyous holiday with our son for twenty years before we lost him. It’s been eighteen more Christmases without him. Truth be told, I often wonder how I will feel in the next years when we will have been without him longer than we had him with us.

The holidays add happy pressure to the rest of our lives, and that pressure compresses the empty part of our soul where we have lost someone. That compression of emptiness can flow thru the small cracks left behind and into our enjoyment and celebration of our lives and the loved ones we have surrounding us.

The real fear, I believe, is that we will someday become comfortable enough in our grief to forget to remember our losses. And yet, we remain hesitant to bring those losses into our happy times for fear of diminishing the joy around us.

When the day comes, my mood will elevate, my slightly elevated heart rate and blood pressure will normalize, I will regain my energy, my heightened aches and pains will lessen and I will bring some stories of the joy of his happy life into our family gathering. I will kick myself for not recognizing the signs earlier and then I will repeat this again next year.

In my writings about grief, I project the comfort that I have with grief. This message is proof that comfort is a relative and variable thing when grieving, the waves of emotions become ripples and life goes on. But, coincident with the annual cycles of life, the waves can come back, and while it’s discomforting, that’s just normal for a short time.

When a riptide threatens to pull you to sea, they say to swim across the tide not against it. The goal is to survive the tide until it lessens, not to drown yourself fighting it to exhaustion. Holidays and celebrations bring a riptide of emotions, even to a gentle flat sea of daily life. Swim sideways, stop fighting it.

Be well and peaceful, swim sideways thru the holidays, and be kind to those who have lost, you are one of them. Also, be kind and understanding of those who haven’t lost, they have happily been blessed with no point of reference or understanding of what you’re feeling.


How to remember me

A significant challenge of grieving is that we don’t have a lot of good models for grief, and we fail to talk with our loved ones about what to do after we inevitably die. When you’re without specific instructions about how to grieve someone, I suggest that you do your best to grieve them as you would want people to grieve you.

One of the greatest gifts you can leave your loved ones is the preparation of a model of how to grieve you.

In this exercise, it’s just a simple statement about how you wish them to grieve the loss of you. I believe that this subject is ideally an ongoing discussion that rarely happens in daily life. If you write it, it can be shared at any time with them while you’re alive, or it can be your obituary, included in a funeral program or handed out at a visitation, or attached to your will. There will be less confusion and wasted energy, so this type of instruction is a loving act.

A natural response to writing and posting something like this could be to take it as a cry for help, a precursor to self harm or suicide. My brother’s suicide has been well incorporated in my soul and I believe myself to be immune to thoughts or acts of suicide. The most dangerous thing I will do today is to cross a street. I am nowhere near dying, very happy and healthy. I am conscious and rational, although there could be some debate on either of those points. I simply believe that we should live each day as if it might be our last, and so I’ll write instructions for grieving me now:

Grieving instructions for Peter H. Ratcliffe

I believe that my life has been a gift, but I have always been attentive to an awareness that the gift of this life has always been finite, a limited time offer that must always eventually come to a physical end.

When the last grains of my grit have trickled through the hourglass of my life, I want all who have loved me to understand that, with your help, I have lived a truly gifted and wonderful lifetime where love and happiness were always central parts of my life.

Please know that as I left you, I was a very loved and fulfilled man with very few regrets. We have built some great love together, so let’s celebrate that.

My legacy, my ongoing journey of loving you and being loved by you is now meant, as I have written so many times, to become the responsibility of you, the next generations.

I want you to extinguish anger from your grief, because anger is a cancer of your soul that consumes love. I do not want any sadness for what you cannot change, only appreciation for the great love that we have shared.

It’s important to tell you that I would not wish my death to become sadness, anger or an excuse or a crutch for you to ever do less than your best efforts at life and happiness. I always expected great things from you, and you always delivered far more than I dared expect, because you have expected even greater things from yourselves than I did. Whatever you are, whatever you have become is not because of me, I simply sat back and watched marveling at how well you have each learned to love life.

I will have done the hard part of this process by being the one dying, and I ask you to cry only for a very short time and only if truly necessary and then please get on with the easier part, the fortunate and honourable tasks of remembering and celebrating the love that we have shared.

Do not focus on the single universal event that we call death. There are literally millions of things from my life for you to celebrate, moments, memories and emotions that we have shared, and all that laughter that we have shared is now embedded in your collective souls. Please laugh early and often, and feel no guilt because I am no longer available to laugh among you.

There are possibly even a few good lessons in those memories, both of how to do things and how not to do things. Share them with each other and with the next generations.

Most importantly, I wish that you gather and talk face to face more among yourselves, keep each other out of danger, build common love to fill any voids that my passing might create.

In honour of my memory, please find ways to better and more deeply love each other and teach the world around you to love more and to love better.

Be well and peaceful whenever you remember me, let the memory of me be a calm place in any storm you encounter.

Your turn

You’re grieving someone and you have never talked about them dying, you’re not sure what path to follow what to do and feel, how to grieve them and find comfort for you.

Write your own statement of how you will want people who have loved you to grieve. Then follow that path any time you grieve anyone who didn’t tell you how to grieve their loss. After all is said and done, love is exactly about respecting and treating people exactly as you would respect and treat yourself.

For those anticipating grief

In the path of illness, when a terminal diagnosis or hospice care becomes a reality, you still have time to ask the dying how you should grieve them. There is no greater closeness in loving someone than the honest confronting of the inevitability of an impending death. It clears the decks and opens the doors to very deep connections and greater peace for the dying love one.

Be well and peaceful, seek comfort in great memories reflecting the lives you have loved and lost.

Grief and celebrations

This is social advice mostly for those who know someone who is grieving. It’s a time of year when many of us gather in celebration, so it’s timely advice.

The world around you celebrates, and that magnifies your sense of loss and diminishes your ability to enjoy the holidays. Most of us who have had significant losses will dread some part of every major holiday, anniversary and event. The discomfort fades with time, but grief never disappears.

In my most honest voice I will state, without judgment, that after we lost our son we were invited to fewer celebrations and seasonal parties. People in your social circle are uncomfortable and unsure how your grief will affect their celebration. You will bring the invisible elephant of grief to their party, and create the inevitable quandary of whether or not we talk about this loss, and what will we or they say.

Is it even appropriate to invite someone who has lost a child to a friendly Christmas party? Let me be clear, we have lost and are grieving, but we aren’t contagious with the black plague. We need to be around people, we need to re-integrate into normal social practices. We don’t require isolation. We may accept your invitation, and then not find the strength to show up, and we may avoid calling to explain.

We will notice if you don’t include us in your invitation list to a regular event that you host among friends. We know that we have changed, we didn’t choose that, and we’re getting used to that. We can’t really hurt more, but it does still hurt when the challenges that life brought to us have changed the simpler love based relationships like friendship. Friends gather to celebrate their love for each other and if we’re your friend we deserve to be part of any such gathering.

After the untimely health related death of a key employee, we were invited by his parents to their home for a family dinner. They had set a place at the table for their lost son, with a picture of him, an acknowledgement that he was still with all of us. It was a great opening to much purposeful and honest sharing of stories about the life lost.

I try to share happy stories of our son at family holiday dinners. Our grandchildren know about their uncle James, who died before they were born. They ask questions, and express that they would have liked to meet him. They recognize him in family pictures. He’s a part of us and now he’s a part of the next generation. It fosters a sense of gentle sense of meaning for any life, a sense that memories of them will endure among their children and grandchildren.  Children will one day try to grieve as they have seen you grieve. Let tears and emotion be a part of that, but also let the happy times shine over the life you loved.

My advice to those hosting parties with newly grieving people attending would be to ask their permission for you to say a few words about their loss, and end your very few words with a moment of silence. Then, the elephant in the room is no longer invisible, and everyone knows a bit about your grief. More people will talk more constructively and comfortably about life, love and inevitably grief.

We, who grieve major losses, can eventually find much greater joy in the simple basic acts of sharing love with friends.  It’s a study in contrasts, the lower your lowest point is, the higher every high point feels and the more we appreciate those joyful moments that we thought we might have lost.

So, be the good friend, don’t look for excuses. Invite those who are grieving to come and share your holiday celebration, your child’s wedding, or any excuse you may use for a party. You’ll learn much about yourself and how you view love and loss in the process, and you will have extended the gift of love of simple kindness to someone who could use some simple kindness.