Grief in the Season of Joy

Everywhere you look, the signs are there: The holidays are here. Turkeys, holly berries, lights, and snowmen are showing up in every store – and on some front lawns – as we roll into the season of joy. 


At least, it’s supposed to be a season of joy, or so we are told.


Sadly, the holidays can be anything but joyful for a substantial portion of the population. For many of us, the holidays are a mixed bag at best. We juggle managing family expectations, maintaining boundaries in the face of pressure and pushback, and strategizing holiday travel while trying not to lose ourselves in a flurry of tinsel and consumerism. It’s a lot.


And for some of us, the holidays are even harder because instead of bringing us joy, they are a sharp reminder of what we have lost.


There are many kinds of loss, each with their own brand of grief attached. 


Ambiguous: Grieving the living


Much of the work in recovering from narcissistic or abusive relationships is learning to define your space by setting boundaries. Creating relationship boundaries involves a deeply personal exploration of who you are, what you deserve, and what you will tolerate. One of the scariest parts of the process lies in communicating your boundaries to friends and loved ones. Will they understand and respect your boundaries? Or will they stomp on them – and by extension, on you?


In a healthy relationship, setting boundaries offers an opportunity to repair and strengthen the relationship. Unfortunately, narcissistic relationships are, by definition, not healthy. Setting boundaries with toxic family members is important work that can nevertheless have painful results. Narcissists may perceive your boundaries as a rejection of themselves, and punish you by rejecting you right back. If you weren’t looking to end the relationship, it can be devastating to feel discarded. 


Perhaps your goal was to terminate a relationship that was too toxic to be salvaged. Does that mean you are immune to the grief and loss associated with the end of a relationship? 


No. None of us are immune to grief. 


When you have been planning, preparing, and working yourself up to ending a toxic relationship, it can be a relief to actually cut the cord. And close on the heels of that relief may come a deep sadness, anger, and a sense of loss. Knowing that the person is still out there living their life while you deal with your pain creates a uniquely sharp edge. You may think to yourself, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Be gentle with your sadness. Give yourself permission to mourn the loss of the healthy, loving relationship you had hoped to build.


Irreplaceable: Grieving the lost


If there is one thing holiday movies, plays, songs, and cards emphasize above all else, it is the importance of family. We are encouraged to visit relatives we don’t often see, put aside disagreements in favor of a harmonious dinner, and feel grateful for the people around us. Grief for the lost is “cured” by a budding new romance or an adventure to find oneself anew. There is always a happy ending.


The happy endings can feel hollow, however, for those who are all too aware of the empty space at the family table.


Grieving those who can no longer celebrate with us is a deep, gnawing hurt. Everything is a reminder: baking his favorite cookies, hanging her favorite ornaments on the tree, and breaking out the fancy china passed down through three generations of matriarchs. Their presence is felt in the empty space that no one else can fill. Grieving the lost wrings the heart like a washcloth, squeezing out every drop of sadness until it forms a puddle around you. 


Nothing can replace a loved one lost to us. Their absence leaves a space in the heart that cannot be filled by anyone else. 


Be kind to your grieving heart as it tries to beat around that unfilled space. The hole in the middle of you won’t disappear, but it won’t always be as large as your life grows around it.


Untouchable: Grieving the loveless 


Narcissism can take many forms, and not all of them are easy to spot. Some narcissistic parents consider their children an extension of them – the “stage mom” and the father who lives through his children’s accomplishments, for example. Some narcissists refuse to allow their spouses or children to make mistakes, because it might reflect poorly on them. They pressure, berate, cajole, and harass those around them into striving for perfection for the narcissist’s benefit. They value their own self-importance above all, and everyone else comes second.


There is another type of narcissist, however, whose self-absorption shows up in a different way. These narcissists don’t go out of their way to pressure or control others. They ignore them. These parents don’t disparage their children’s feelings because they don’t acknowledge them in the first place. They don’t particularly care whether their children are successful in school or work because their focus is squarely on themselves. Self-absorbed narcissists don’t actively reject those around them; they simply don’t much care that anyone else is there.


Growing up with a parent who can’t be bothered to see you can make you feel invisible, unvalued, and unworthy. After all, if your own parent doesn’t celebrate your existence, who will? Every holiday, birthday, and life event is another opportunity for them to show that they care about you. And every time, they just….don’t. Grieving the loveless relationships marked by parental indifference is an ongoing hurt. Your parent’s inability to remove their gaze from their own navel leaves you feeling alone and unloved. Be generous with your soft parts as they brace for the same blunt force injury they sustain every year that passes with no change. Your grief is valid, and I see you.


There can be joy in the season of grief


In the midst of the sadness, there can also be joy. 


Find joy in those around you who value you and treasure your presence.


Take pride in your growth, healing, and in choosing to leave a different legacy than you were handed.


Seek comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone, and that you have a community.


Grief is a sign that you have loved. Take heart. You are capable of more than you were shown, taught, or given. Your grief does not define you, and you deserve joy.