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  • Writer's pictureRev. Dr. Dale A. Young

Holiday Grief Triggers

Our family had gathered for dinner at a fine restaurant, invited by my mother, who was visiting from Wisconsin. We were ordering drinks and perusing the menu when my mom burst into tears. Silence blanketed the gathering as we looked at each other, wondering if we had said or done anything to cause her to cry. It was the first time in six years that my mother had seen her grandchildren (our two sons and a daughter). They had been living in Chile and were now in Miami. We asked mom what the matter was, and after she dried her tears with a napkin, she looked at my daughter, who was sitting next to her, and said, “Her bright brown eyes remind me of Virginia.” Then we all understood. My sister Virginia had died of an inoperable heart defect at the age of eight. Although my mother had grieved and coped and adjusted to life without her daughter, and more recently without her husband, when she looked at my daughter’s eyes, it triggered memories of her daughter about that same age, and she burst into tears.

Any parent who has lost a child will understand that certain moments or situations trigger the flooding of grief emotions. It does not matter if the loss occurred a month ago or a year ago, or 20 years ago; the wound of grief is always there. It takes very little for the wound’s scab to fall off, and the emotional bleeding will flow. This is especially true during the holiday season when nostalgia-loaded sights and sounds may trigger emotional flooding. Parents of a grief support group often commented that they avoided shopping malls during the holidays because the music would be a grief trigger.

Similarly, putting up Christmas decorations or wrapping gifts may be a trigger. In the “sub-culture” of grievers, we have come to accept the likelihood of grief triggers as our new normal. We have patience and compassion for one another because we know that we carry the burden of grief just below the surface.

Isabel Allende, the author of House of Spirits, lost her daughter to a prolonged illness in 1992. She shared her experience in the book, “Paula.” She wrote, “Many years have gone by, but the feeling of loss (for Paula) is still there, and there’s some sadness. I don’t want to get rid of that sadness; it’s part of who I am today. I feel like it’s a fertile soil at the bottom of my heart where everything wonderful grows—creativity, compassion, love, and even joy; the joy of knowing that there’s a spirit I can connect to. At the beginning, the first few years were horrible. Now I know there’s nothing wrong with suffering. We live in a society where we don’t want to accept anything that looks ugly, like death, pain or poverty. We all want to be great, but that’s not what life is about.”

Knowing that we all grieve differently, the holiday season is a special time for compassion, empathy, and care for one another. Every year at this time, I feel a need to listen to Handel’s Messiah—it nurtures my spiritual self. Handel quotes Isaiah with words like,

“Comfort, comfort my people.”

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

“Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

“He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all who mourn…to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning…”

Words like those from Isaiah remind me that I am not alone. During this season, I look with hope for Emanuel, one who is coming to be present, to companion me. The Holy One who knew me before I was born will offer comfort and will bind up the brokenhearted and will be for me a light in a time of darkness. He does not come as a powerful king but like a vulnerable child. This good news gives me hope that I may open my heart to comfort others just as I have received comfort. Let’s be patient with one another. Let’s have compassion for one another.

I hope and pray that your holiday season be blessed with a full measure of compassion and comfort.


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