The Gift of Grieving

The Gift of Grieving

By Cynthia Toussaint.

Let’s face it. There’s tremendous pressure to be happy and festive over the holidays.  The streets fill with carolers and decorations. It seems every commercial has a family enjoying a cup of cheer.  And the ghosts of our Christmas pasts remind us ‘tis the season to be jolly.

For we women in pain though, another motif often plays out during the holidays. It’s one filled with pain and loss – and it can get the best of us if we don’t practice the self-care tool of grieving. I know because it was only after I grieved my seasonal loss that I stopped dreading the ’ber months (Sept’, Oct’, Nov’ and Dec’) and began enjoying the holidays again, but with different expectations.

Cynthia Toussaint

Growing up, my joy was year round. But make no mistake, the holidays were off the charts magical. Thanksgiving was always at our best friend’s, the DePace’s, in their high-on-the-hill abode. We dressed to the nines and the love and laughter while feasting was almost nonstop. We’d gorge ourselves while kidding that the only way we’d get to the car would be to roll each other out.

Then, oh baby, Christmas was on its way. Our family belonged to a co-op and we waited with big eyes and anticipation for the Sunday morning they’d sell their trees. Everyone rose at 5am to get to the lot. We picked out our tree, met friends while warming our hands by the fire, drank hot chocolate and listened to the classics. Mom’s favorite was Doris Day. Think Norman Rockwell with a twist of Flower Children.

The good tidings rambled on through my New Year’s Eve birthday when the family threw a huge party. We were deep into the community theater scene – and no one missed the Toussaint’s annual shindig. Even the clean-up was festive when we woke New Year’s Day and laughed about the confetti ground into the parquet floors.

Several years after my high-impact, chronic pain took hold, however, there was no longer reason for celebration. In fact, I remember one Christmas morning when my partner, John, and I were alone in our condo after being up all night with unspeakable sadness. We silently untrimmed our tree and took down anything and everything that reminded us that we should be merry.

The holidays grinded on like this for a couple of decades, despite my trying every which way to make them festive and joyful again. I kept knocking my head against the wall while I searched in vain to bring back the old days. Turns out I was searching for ghosts.

Then one year I tried something new. I grieved. I mean, I really grieved. I grieved that I no longer had a big family that would sit around the fireplace. I grieved that John and I wouldn’t be able to have our own family to celebrate with. I grieved that I would never again have the health to do the million little things that make the holidays spectacular.

And then something wonderful happened. My grieving turned into acceptance of what is – and with that came new, realistic expectations. I now know the holidays won’t be a whiz-bang magical circus of delight. Instead there’ll be a steady string of seasonal pleasantries with a healthy dollop of grateful moments and, yes, the occasional upset. Also, I won’t spend the season with a big happy family, but will enjoy making merry with good friends and family members when the feeling is right. More often than not these days when my birthday rolls around I’m generally glowing and feeling special for what loved ones have done for me. Ringing in the New Year is again laced with joy and hope.

I’m grateful to have gained the self-care wisdom to grieve – and with practice, I’ve gotten good at it. People often tell me not to grieve because it will make me sad. I couldn’t disagree more. When human beings experience significant loss, it’s healthy and necessary to grieve in order to come through the other side. If we don’t allow ourselves this natural healing process, heartbreak and sadness will fester and we tend to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. That, and we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to grow.

It’s important to remember that grieving is an ongoing process – and the five steps (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are not necessarily linear and without repeats. For instance, just last week, I began grieving again the loss of the child John and I wanted to have more than two decades ago. And I grieved it differently as I thought longingly about the young adult who’d be a college student now and on her way home to celebrate.

We women in pain need to give ourselves the space and gift of grieving. We experience so much loss which is amplified during the holidays. Instead of turning away with fake smiles and witty small talk when our hearts are breaking, let’s lean into the pain to the healthiest point we’re able.

When we truly grieve, our overwhelming heaviness becomes a brick that we carry around in our pocket. And that’s do-able during this season of “comfort and joy.”

I wish you peace and the wonder of grace…

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Cynthia Toussaint founded For Grace in 2002. It is a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to gender disparity in the treatment of pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.

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Louis Ogden

Susan L Myers, thanks for your reply. I’m actually glad that our parents aren’t able to see what is going on in the pain world. It would kill my mom (sick sense of humor comes shining through). In addition, I am not religious so I do not miss all the hub-bub surrounding the holidays. I remove myself by not watching TV nor going shopping with the crowds. I sincerely wish you and yours a pain-free as possible holiday season.

Susan L Myers

Louis Ogden, thank you and I am also sorry for your losses. You mentioned music in another comment and I agree so strongly that music is therapy. Enjoy! I lost my bio-dad on my birthday in 2011 and still have my mom and currently living together. Oh I just hope we can all get thru these holidays without to much pain.
Cynthia, thank you for your writings. I always find comfort on this site when reading the articles and others that comment.

Louis Ogden

Kris Aaron, I agree with everything you say. I have no family other than my wife and her brother. We will probably get together and jam on some blues. Music is my therapy!

Louis Ogden

Susan L Myers, I’m so sorry for your loss. I know what that feels like to grieve the passing of family members while in pain as my mom and dad and my wife’s mom and dad all died within a 10 year period. Life can be so cruel.

Thank you Cynthia, this is just what I needed to read right now as life is very hard at the moment with my CRPS, plus a fragile bed ridden Father I am looking after. Reading this has made me feel better as I understand some of your feelings too, especially about a child that may have been a part of my life. :*

Susan L Myers

Thank you for this today, My dad passed yesterday from Dementia and I am suffering with many different health and chronic pain issues. Now my heart is breaking….

Kris Aaron

Often, Christmas isn’t particularly meaningful to people who aren’t deep into the religious trappings. My husband and I discovered that spending the day watching movies on DVD and feasting on snack food gave us a much-needed break from culturally imposed “cheer” and forced celebrations with people we love but prefer to avoid in a crowded house. My physical disability and accompanying pain was the perfect reason to stay home and indulge in absolute sloth (isn’t that one of the seven deadly sins?). We open presents, then start the movies and break out the treats and pricy beverages — our “gift” to ourselves.
A day free from the expectations of others — who may be less than understanding of physical pain and disability — is a delight!
Sadly, the holidays often trigger rage and frustration in people who focus on life’s disappointments rather than rewards. One surly relative can ruin even the most well-planned celebration, and a houseful of overly stimulated small children isn’t easy for pain patients to cope with.
So we’ve turned Christmas Day into a gift to ourselves, a day spent in total self-indulgence!. For me, that means putting my feet up and keeping phone conversations short and sweet. It’s one of those free-and-priceless “presents” that makes its own happy memories, along with the knowledge that my pain isn’t damaging anyone else’s happy holiday.

Thank you once again Miss Cynthia! This will be my year to start that process as well. I’ve lost my entire family in one shape form or fashion this year. This will be the first year since I was 19 years old that I simply decided not to put up a tree nor lavishly decorate my home. Just this morning I told myself Christmas will just be another day. Then I thought, how truly selfish of me to say this! So what if there’s no family, no gifts, no decorations, no large dinner if any. We celebrate Christmas to honor Jesus!! Yes it’s a delight for this season to come with all the wonderment and nostalgia but when there is none left it seems hard to do so! The old song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year… It is truly what we make of it. With lack of pain medicine at times it’s hard to make anything happen but as I read a story yesterday here about disability from Ellen, one man Geoffrey Neilson’s story was a large wake up call. This year my greatest gift will be my prayers, to all who suffer in chronic pain not to mention to those who are poor, homeless, those that will spend Christmas in hospitals, institutions, jails and prisons alike, those in whom are dealing with life’s most tragic issues that somewhere, somehow, they can simply find a piece of joy, in this holiday season. To everyone may God truly bless you and help you find peace and joy. My prayers are that you all manage to have a very Merry Christmas indeed!

JoDawn

Beautiful. ❤️🥺❤️
Happy holidays, sweetie. Hop a flight & join our circus. It’s not fancy, but the clowns are worth it.
Hugs!!
Jo

Virginia

Amen, sister. The wonder of grace is definitely something we all need at this time and always. Thank you for sending out this bit of grace just now. And giving me, and I’m sure many of us out here, an even better way of looking at our situation, but more importantly, being able to give ourselves something more along with our grief; grace. Grace by definition is simple elegance or refinement of movement. In the Christian view it is the bestowing of blessings. Once again, thank you, Cynthia, for your encouraging words. You’ve just made my holiday season much brighter.

Larry Feldman

Having all limb rsd for 30 years I can understand how you felt, and that’s part of my problem with this column. The issues of chronic pain & loss aren’t restricted to one gender, nor do they solely fall on those of us stricken with some malady, but are also as deeply felt by those closest around us.

Julia Heath

Very interesting piece. And I agree that grieving loss instead of shoving it down to try & avoid it is the best way to heal. The wonderful thing, if you truly understand the real meaning of CHRISTmas (if you get my hint!) is about a Savior who willingly came in the most unlikely circumstances (he was the son of God and was born in a barn, literally!) who lived as one of us with all the things we suffer, and then chose to suffer the pain and shame of crucifixion (with real crucifixions of that time, they hung you up beaten and naked – how humiliating for someone who could’ve called angels to his side to rescue him but chose not to). And he did this to show how much each person means to him – to show us our value. To take the shame of sin and failure on himself so we could be free. So even in my pain, no one and nothing can take away the real meaning of my season! So let’s rejoice in what was done for us and give Jesus a good birthday celebration – the kind that comes from a heart of gratitude. I struggle with the things I tend to miss out on during this time of year because of this illness, but creating new ways to celebrate and enjoy the holidays is doable. When I make this season about celebrating Jesus and blessing others, the frustration of my limitations tend to take their proper place in the background. So let your heart be light and at peace knowing that you are of great value to God, and may you find purpose in reaching out to meet the needs of others.