As soon as the Christmas rush subsides and the wrapping paper is thrown away, we start to think about how we will ring in the new year. Images of smiling faces, popping champagne corks, and fireworks tell us how we might be behaving, thinking or even feeling. Yet for many, the persistent feelings of loss and sadness about a person, a relationship or life once lived limit the awareness that a new year is truly a new start.
The spotlight that is placed on our lives at New Year’s creates a make-believe time where we imagine that the thoughts we engage with can assist us in navigating the year ahead. While the powers of intentional thoughts have their place in our emotional well-being, for many facing lost loved ones or relationships, their desires can be beyond their grasp.
As a grief researcher and counselor, and a human being with my own narratives of loss, I see this time of year as the trigger for reminders of what is lost, not just what is surrounding us. For some, the image of other families or aspirations — either in our day-to-day life or via social media — create emptiness. This makes the possibility of the season difficult to grasp.
In my most recent study I interviewed families who had a missing loved one. They shared that significant times of the year, such as the holiday season, challenged their perception of hope. They told me how, prior to the loss that they had endured, hope was intrinsically connected to the new year. It promised more than empty plans for weight loss or new fitness crazes to try. It signaled opportunity. The loss they were currently living with reminded them of how hope was now a teasing journey, taunting them with ideas of what might have been rather and reinforcing this new life to which they had not yet adjusted.
In my early years as a grief counselor, I realized that the power of storytelling was the simplest way for me to connect with the people who came to see me. The wisdom shared by others became a list that people could take away and reflect on:
- The power of vulnerability, of sharing the stories of hopefulness and hopelessness, is an act of bravery, not a sign of limited coping.
- To be brave, identify a safe person or group of people to connect with and surround yourself with them as needed.
- It is OK to name what or who is no longer here. Reanimate the person or the relationship that was lost. The person or relationship is more than the fact that it is gone. Remember what it felt like to be loved, to be connected, to be hopeful. Cherish that.
- Rather than making New Year’s resolutions, or pushing back against this concept, think about some New Year’s intentions. How will you intentionally talk to yourself, look after yourself, nurture yourself in the year ahead?
- Arthur Frank tells us that “stories animate human life, that is their work.” Listen for others’ experiences and mold them to ways that might connect with your story. This can help in developing new ways of living alongside loss.
Fear and optimism are intrinsically linked. They play out in the balance that comes from learning to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. Loss reminds us that there is very little we can control in life other than the way we react and the way we choose to respond daily. My suggestion is to turn inward this holiday season if loss is a part of your life’s narratives. Reflect on others’ stories and those who support you. Connect with others.
Sharing grief photo available from Shutterstock