There are a number of reasons we experience grief during the holidays. Loss of someone you love, work struggles, health crises, and so much more can all make the holidays harder to cope with. When I experienced recurrent miscarriage, I was fully unprepared for the immense grief that would overtake me during the holidays. During a time when you’re “supposed” to be happy and celebrate with friends and family, celebrating can feel like the last thing in the world you want to do. While I can’t make the grief you’re experiencing go away (trust me, I wish I could), what I can tell you are the five things that helped me through grief during the holidays after my first miscarriage.
Deep Sadness During the Holidays
As the Holiday season of 2015 approached, I had just had had my first miscarriage. One of my closest friends from college, Whitney, reached out to me, as she had had back-to-back miscarriages, and she knew what I was going through.
At that point in time, grieving my first loss after a year-and-a-half of trying to conceive, I was unable to comprehend her misery. How could anyone go through this twice?
I felt naively thankful that, thus far, I had only had to manage coping with loss once. I had no idea what I was in for.
The reverse was actually true. I ultimately lost 4 pregnancies before having Jack. A few years later, Whitney actually told how she felt her story didn’t compare to mine.
These are important lessons I wish I could teach you, dear reader.
Don’t compare your journeys. Don’t compare your joys. And dear God, girl, don’t compare your grief.
I Wanted to Escape
The Christmas after my first loss, I desperately wanted to get away during this holiday season of grief. For me, the holiday season absolutely magnified my grief, and I know that it does for a lot of people. It’s just so hard to celebrate and feel “normal” when you’ve lost something so incredibly important to you.
I decided I wanted to go to Prague. But let me be clear about something. It wasn’t actually Prague that I wanted, but the idea of a place far away where I could escape from the reality of my life and loss. I could’ve found the same kind of escapism by skipping Christmas day and watching romantic Hallmark movies all day.
This desire to escape grief is normal. Read another experience of it here.
Where isn’t the point. The point is that I wanted to be anywhere except in the place where I’d imagined announcing a pregnancy. Where, when we began trying to conceive, I’d imagined already having a baby to celebrate with this Christmas.
My Escapism Fantasy Was Prague
It wasn’t about Prague. It was about escapism. And Prague, for whatever reason, is what my mind latched onto.
Because it felt far away, for sure. And cold, which seemed appropriate. In Atlanta, with moderate weather and fires and good central HVAC, I think of Christmas as a warm time. Of course, most of my visions of it are indoors, but I hear and smell crackling fires and feel their warmth, along with the coffee or hot chocolate that’s in my hand.
But my heart felt cold. Prague is COLD.
My vision of Prague was full of Christmas celebrations and markets, and yet not the Christmas I was used to at all.
To me, Prague would be crowded with people buried under so many layers of clothing that I could hide among the crowd, practically invisible, perhaps disappearing even to myself.
That’s what I really wanted. To disappear and never once be merry or bright.
Family man that he is, Husband wasn’t interested in my European Christmas escape plan. “It would disappoint far too many people for you to miss Christmas, and I wants to see everyone,” he said.
I assumed I was being overly dramatic and didn’t push the issue. If I could go back, I’d push it, even if I were only pushing letting me stay home to watch Hallmark movies along.
Knowing what I know now, I wish I had worked to convince him of just how badly I needed to not do the rigmarole of “celebration.”
My Advice for Surviving Grief During the Holidays
1. Ask for What You Need
Here’s the deal, if you feel like you need to get away from the normalcy of a traditional, family-based holiday celebration, do it. It might not be easy if your partner wants to stay in town and honor your normal traditions, but…
Try harder! Plead, beg, implore, insist!
Find the words to be candid about what you need in a way you don’t think you know how to be.
If I could give you any advice and know you’d hear it, it’d be to put your foot down. Be stubborn about what you need.
Keep in mind that going away for the holiday (or watching movies alone at home) is not establishing a new normal. It’s simply caring for yourself.
Not everyone needs this kind of escape, and if you don’t, good for you. But know that there will be hard moments during major celebrations, and you may want to build in temporary escape plans.
For me, it was going to the bathroom (and sitting, fully clothed, on a closed toilet, just to get away.)
2. Try To Let Go of Your Guilt
Unfortunately, I gave in and didn’t try hard enough to convince Husband that I desperately needed to GET THE HELL OUT OF ATLANTA for the holidays.
I spent Christmas Eve with my parents, watched my niece open her gifts on Christmas morning, and spent Christmas Day at Husband’s parents’ house.
I felt guilty every second of it.
I felt guilty for not enjoying the holidays due to my grief.
Everything was just like it always had been, except the giant, gaping hole in my heart, left by the baby who had recently been in my womb.
Guilt Over My Sister-in-Law’s Minor Pregnancy Scare
If you know me at all, you know I would NEVER wish a pregnancy complication on anyone. To the contrary, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping women going through hard times, like pregnancy loss, infant loss, and mental health struggles.
And yet, I was strangely relieved when a minor scare (don’t worry; it was nothing serious) kept my seven-months pregnant sister-in-law from driving home in time for the family Christmas.
I felt terrified for her, but I still gasped with relief when I found out I wouldn’t have to see her belly.
I felt tremendous guilt over these feelings.
Hell, you don’t want to begrudge anyone’s more fortunate reproductive luck. You absolutely don’t want any mother to ever be afraid for her child. And you certainly don’t want someone you care about to have to miss Christmas with her family. It’s an occasion she loves, and which usually, I love, too.
Let Go of Your Guilt
I know it’s hard, but don’t feel guilty about whatever strange thoughts and emotions find their way to you.
You’re doing your best. Whatever emotions you’re feeling, they aren’t coming from a rational place. They’re coming from a broken heart and a mind that’s trying to protect you. It’s okay .
Letting yourself feel this guilt, and then letting it pass, is the only way you’re going to get through situations like this.
Remember that grief during the holidays is not how you’ll always experience the holidays. This year, or these years, are outliers in your lifetime of holidays.
Your guilt is the same. It’s an outlier. It won’t always be there, so let it go.
3. If You Can’t Completely Escape, Take Small Breaks
When you are experiencing grief during the holidays, take a break. Away from the noise. Away from the people who are somehow able to celebrate.
Likely, you’ll be in a fog, desperately trying to forget how different this holiday could’ve looked for you.
Maybe you’re like me and you had planned a surprise to announce your pregnancy to your family today.
But your baby didn’t make it. You had surgery. You’re healing. You’re grieving. At least I was.
And their worlds are still turning.
How the hell can their worlds still turn?
And Give Others a Break For Not Understanding
During this holiday in grief, I spent a lot of time alone in the bathroom trying to escape, but no one really wants to spend a lot of time in a room with a toilet unless you have to.
So here’s my advice if you have to spend the holiday doing your normal holiday routine. Find some chores to do that will help take your mind off your grief.
Or just take a small break by going for a walk or otherwise removing yourself from everyone else’s merriment.
I was shocked to realize that I spent hours doing dishes completely by myself.
I wouldn’t normally be excited at all about doing the dishes by myself, but apparently I kept telling everyone that I didn’t need help. What I needed was SPACE.
Doing the dishes honestly helped occupy the hours until I could go home and fall apart on my bathroom floor like I’d wanted to do all day.
4. Reach Out for Help from Someone Close to You
You don’t want to break down in the middle of a “celebration,” but sometimes you simply cannot keep it together.
If you’re a weepy basket case like I was, it’s times like this that you need to reach out to someone close to you. During the Christmas from hell, I didn’t reach out to anyone, and I should have. Luckily, I found that outlet in my mom.
I knew my mom felt something had been more than “off” with me all day.
Then out of the blue, she looked me in the eye and sternly but lovingly said, “You’re not doing this again next year.“
I don’t know exactly what she meant, and I’ll never ask. But I’m pretty sure it was her way of saying that she wished I was in Prague. Or anywhere but there.
Apparently, you can’t hide that kind of suffering.
All I wanted was for my baby to be in my belly, not in Heaven. All she wanted was for her baby to be anywhere other than miscarriage Hell.
I wish I had reached out to my mom and not waited for her to notice my pain. The nice thing about her noticing is that she just kind of knew that I needed her. Having her understand and validate my grief by acknowledging it helped me get through an unbearable day.
It also helped me realized that my desire to escape was completely acceptable.
5. Know that Grief Won’t Always Be Your Center
As you celebrate the holiday, the day might feel like years. But our brains repress the most painful moments, so it’s likely that you will remember it in sound bytes, unsure of the order of things or how a full day really passed.
I remember the haze, the staring out the window in front of the sink as I scrubbed my anger out on those dishes.
I was focused on one world: my Hell, not the celebration everyone else thought I was a part of.
I remember finally going home, after what felt like the longest day of my life, and falling to pieces. I wanted to scream at Husband, furiously: “WHY THE HELL DID YOU MAKE ME DO THIS?”
But I didn’t. I knew he didn’t understand. I knew I didn’t work to make him understand.
But he understands now.
And what he understands now is that on that day, grief was my center. But what I didn’t know is that it wouldn’t always be that way.
Words of Love To Everyone Experiencing Grief During the Holidays
I want to tell you, my grieving reader, something that should become a sort of mantra for you.
And it’s not just for you, but for everyone experiencing grief during the holidays:
Grief will not always be your center, either.
It will get better, even if it feels like your life is ending.
Find what you need to do for yourself right now and do not feel guilty about it.
If I ever again experience this kind of grief during the Holidays, damn what anyone else thinks. I’m going to Prague.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, toddler mom, and owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society has historically placed too many expectations on women, defining womanhood and motherhood in a way that is restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Scary Mommy, Motherhood and Social Exclusion, and various other podcasts and websites.