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Coming Up with Tree Day – Thinking about Grief and the Holidays

I often teach workshops on grief – how we can support others who are grieving and how to manage it ourselves. One of the things that often comes up are holidays and our traditions. Anyone who has grieved a life event can tell you right away – the holidays and traditions can be stressful and difficult as you learn to navigate a life event.

In our workshops we use a definition of grief that may feel a little different. We say “Grief is the natural and normal feelings that come with a loss of or a change in a pattern of behavior.”

So yes, we certainly grieve when someone dies. Of course. But we may also grieve a move, or a break-up, or the loss of someone we love to something outside of their control like an illness. There are LOTS of ways folks may not be able to be present with us and for us. We all know too well how COVID-19 reshaped being together for so many life events – graduations, funerals, holidays.

Part of the hurt we feel comes from our patterns of behavior being disrupted and lost. That is why holidays and traditions can be painful. Because we associate those things with “we always do this” and “you always cook that” and “this is what the holiday looks like.” We have expectations because our traditions bind us together as a family and community. And those patterns and expectations make it even more painful for us when traditions must shift or change.

Some of us may not be ready to move on just yet. And that’s okay! We may find solace and comfort in doing things the way we have always done them. We need to honor that and be compassionate with ourselves.

Others of us may want to re-define those patterns and write a new chapter in how we celebrate or come together. That’s okay too.

And some of us may not know exactly what in the heck to do. That’s okay too. There’s no stop watch for grief.

I remember when I got divorced – wow that first year was rough. There were soooo many things our family had “always” done and I was confronted with a lot of change all at once. Just when I thought I had my footing – a new tradition would come up and I’d be confronted all over again. The holidays that year were especially challenging, and I spent a lot of time processing my emotions.

I remember thinking about Thanksgiving. It has always been one of my favorites. I love cooking, having family and friends around my old farm table, playing board games after dinner. What was I going to do when everything needed to change? I ended up coming up with a solution that worked for me. Rather than focusing too heavily on that particular day – I focus on the weekend just after. My Grandma June always had “tree day” when I was growing up. A day when we all came together and got a holiday tree as a family. So now – no matter where I am or whose table I’m sharing on Thanksgiving – I always have “tree day” and my kids know that it’s really important to me. Our family was able to find a new path forward, but that’s not saying it was easy. I had to process a lot of complicated feelings associated with redefining what that would look like from now on. Many years down the road and now the boys make a big deal out of “tree day” and I know that it is going to be a tradition they have for their own families.

Just remember: there’s no right or wrong answer to this thing we call grieving. If you are struggling during the holidays with a life event – please be kind and gentle with yourself. It’s okay to have difficulty. It’s okay to have complicated feelings. It’s okay to ask for support from those around you. There is no play book. There is no one way to manage. There are all sorts of ways forward and you are finding your own path!

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