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When There Is No Jingle In The Bells


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When There Is No Jingle in the Bells
by Doug Manning

It was all she could do to open the door and walk into the party. Her husband, Charles, had died a few months before, and now she found herself going to an office Christmas party she could not find a way to avoid.

Mary and Charles had built the company together, and now the whole burden was on her shoulders. She did not want her grief to rob the employees of their annual party, which had always been one of the highlights of the year. The employees always brought their families along, so this became a time of bonding together. There were always toys for the children, good food and entertainment.

Mary could hardly stand the thought of not attending such an event, but she could not stand the idea of canceling either. The party would be a crushing reminder that Charles was no longer here and would never be here for these events. The joy the party would bring seemed to make light of his death. Laughing and having a good time seemed totally out of place and somehow wrong. She drove to the party, full of dread and anger, but she went.

The first person she met as she walked in the door was her pastor. He was a fixture at these events and was invited as usual. He grabbed her hand and said, “Mary, the secret is just to be happy.” She rightly thought that was one of the worst platitudes she had ever heard, but she smiled and said nothing. Then she met the pastor’s wife who said, “Mary I know this is a hard time for you, but doesn’t it give you great comfort to know that Charles will be spending this Christmas with Jesus?”

Mary, the dedicated church pianist, heard herself scream, “No! He should be spending it with me!” She still blushes when she tells the story, but there is a hint of pride in her voice even as she blushes. That was exactly what she should have said.

The holidays can be a very difficult time for people in grief, and it usually comes as a complete surprise. No one expects these times of family traditions, fun and celebration to become times of deep grieving and depression. No one expects the holidays to become a source of intense pressure and family conflict. Even when these facts are expressed, the family usually has a hard time believing them to be true. They may think you need the holidays more this year than ever. You seem sad, so the logical thing is to find ways to “cheer you up.” What better way than a family gathering to celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah? So the family begins to pressure, and you begin to react.

To celebrate a holiday may seem to trivialize your grief right at the time when every part of your being is dedicated to establishing the significance of the life and the loss of your loved one. You want to talk about what your loved one meant to you. You want to inventory and discuss what the loss will mean in your life. You want to hear how much your loved one meant to others. For the holidays to go on just like nothing happened cuts deeply into this need.

The first time you laugh, you may feel a surge of guilt well up and think, How dare I laugh when my loved one is gone. Those same feelings are brought on in a constant stream by the growing rush toward the coming holidays. Everything else is supposed to take a back seat. All other emotions are supposed to go away. It is holiday time, and that is all that matters. But that is not all that matters to you.

The holidays are meant to create joy and family unity, but now they can create great divisions. The family may want the holidays to go on just like they always have. The traditions each family observes become deeply set and hard to change. The family may feel it is time for you to “get on with your life.” They may not realize that the traditions must change, and they can never be the same again. For example, if the stockings were always hung on the fireplace and a child in the family dies, what is to be done with the stockings this Christmas? Should they all be hung, and everyone just pretends the child is still there? Should all but one be hung, and let the blank space serve as a constant reminder of the loss?

If the stockings are a family tradition, the family may almost insist that they be hung. If they are not hung, the family will feel a sense of loss, and Christmas will not be the same. So the dilemma grows. These conflicts are present at all the holidays, not just Christmas. The celebration of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Easter, Yom Kippur, Valentine’s Day and any anniversary of birth or death is likely to create these kinds of family tensions.

The hardest part of the holidays is the demand placed on those in grief. Suddenly you are faced with the need for emotions you do not have. All of your emotional strength is vested in getting through each day as it comes; there are no reserves left for feeling joy or thanksgiving. You don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the holiday, but there is no jingle in your bells, and a one-horse open sleigh sounds cold. There are no emotions left for much fun. The holidays demand a focus you cannot give. Grief brings on times when your mind “browns out.” You can’t concentrate on anything for very long. How then can you think through all of the things that go into a holiday season?

The key word in grief is permission. When you boil down all of the speeches, books, and seminars on grief, they all come down to the one essential element of finding permission to grieve. There are no magic words to be said. There are no magic people to take away the pain. It all comes down to giving yourself permission to grieve as long as necessary in any way that works, and finding that same permission from family and friends. The holidays are no different. The best advice you can ever find is to give yourself permission. The best advice for your friends is to step back and let it happen. It might be a great help if you asked your family and friends to read this article. If they don’t know of the need for permission, they are not likely to grant it.

You need permission to do what you can do. I suggest that you make a list of what you think you can do and what you want to do for each holiday. If you have always cooked the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, you should be free to decide if that is what you want to do this year. If so, fine. If not, then inform the family of what you want to do, and stick by your plans.

You need the permission to change traditions. Many families find healing in new traditions built around the memories of a life. My grandson was born on Christmas Eve and died on Christmas Day. In the seven years since his death, we have built a new tradition into our Christmas. Just before the gifts are opened, we light a candle in honor of Isaac Burns. As the years have passed, the other grandchildren have picked up on this tradition and now remind me to get the candle ready, and one of them will ask for the privilege of lighting the candle. Find a new way to remember the life that now lives in the family memories.

You need permission to be where you need to be. The son of one of my former employees died by suicide. The first Christmas her immediate family went to Disney World. The extended family put on unbelievable pressure saying, “We need you here this year more than ever,” but she stood her ground. She knew she was not ready for this family experience, and she had enough courage to withstand the pressure to go where she felt safe. It is not possible for every family to go to Disney World, but you should be free to be where you are comfortable. If that is home alone, then be home alone. It must be your call.

You need permission to be with the ones who bring peace and comfort. This is tricky, because it may sound to the family as if others bring comfort, and they do not. Grief needs safe people and safe places. There is no explanation for why some people feel safe and others do not. Very often your best friends will not be the ones you want to be with during your grief. Often your family will not be the ones either. The friends and family have not done anything wrong and neither have you. There will just be some people that, for some reason, feel good during the hurt. The holidays are a good time to be with those folks. That is not rude or selfish, that is simply getting through some especially tough days. The day will come when old friends and family will feel as comfortable as an old shoe. Until then, feel free to be with the old shoes you are wearing.

When there is no jingle in the bells, don’t try to shake them until the jingle returns.

By Doug Manning, in Bereavement Magazine, November/December 2001, Bereavement Publications, Inc. , (888) 60-4HOPE (4673), grief@bereavementmag.com. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Visit Doug Manning’s Web site, Insight Books, at http://www.insightbooks.com/DougManning.aspx
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  • 2 weeks later...


Thanks for posting this. It really helped me. Well, is still helping me.

The worst for me I think is getting past my own high expectations for myself.

Yes it is hard to hear some comments from some people.. who probably mean well.. but.. Those things I can let roll most of the time because most of them have their hearts in the right place and aren't anywhere near walking in my shoes. So ... I know they really can't understand.

I'm trying to let go of my own usual expectations, grab new more reasonable ones... go with the flow... or hunch or whathaveyou.

I'm feeling like I am totalling "winging" this holiday; But "winging it" is not something I am accustomed to. This is something new.

Yet.. everything is new... everything has changed.. so why shouldn't my expectations of me?

Things that used to be so important as far as "customs" go.. don't seem so anymore. Things that are totally new & different... somehow feel better than the old reliables sometimes. Small things of the past we will include... but I can't handle too much more than that.

Nothing feels "good"... like it used to. But I guess that is to be expected.

I'm not huddled under a blanket with eyes shut tight wishing my way into next year... so I guess that's good.

But much of this post helps me get through it all. So I thank you.

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  • 11 months later...

I don't know if I'm allowed to reply to news topics, but I just wanted to say, thank you for posting this article! I really like what the author says about being with whomever feels safe.

I don't really feel right, "safe", with certain good friends, even though they are good friends. I am still looking around for "safe" people, really.

And I have a question - how do I give myself permission to grieve? This article made me realize...I think, I haven't given myself permission to grieve yet. I'm resisting.

Help? (I'll try posting this in a more appropriate thread, too).

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