Grief at Christmas and the joy that isn't happiness

[This is an update of an article that I wrote a few years ago. There are people in my life who have experienced recent loss and grief, and some who are struggling. I hope this post offers encouragement, support and a healing balm.]

Christmas is the time of year that is supposed to be filled with joy but for many it isn't. Many experience sadness, grief, loneliness, fear and anxiety and can especially struggle with those feelings during a season of expected festiveness. This I know.

My mum died on the 19th of December, 1996.  For years, my experience of Christmas was overshadowed by my feelings of grief and loss and aloneness. I not only lost my mum but also Christmas as I knew it.

As the years have passed, our family has expanded: when my dad remarried, we gained a stepmother and step-siblings, nieces and nephews have been born, and more recently I married adding a husband and his Italian family. The family has also contracted as people have left this world. My mum’s dad, my Papa, died the day after the third anniversary of mum’s death. Christmas was overshadowed by yet another loss and more grief and sadness. Death forever changes the structure of a family. For a long time I felt lost within my family and I grieved the loss of old way of traditions.

There can be so much expectation at this time of year by others and ourselves that we should be happy and festive and joyful. It can be even more painful when no matter how we try we can’t find that joy within ourselves. Pain, grief and sorrow cannot be commanded away.

Dictionary.com defines joy "as the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying."

But I no longer believe in that definition of joy because I have experienced something different. Joy is not the result of external experience and it’s not what we think it is.

In his book, The Presence Process, Michael Brown writes, "we confuse joy with the outer changing experience called "the pursuit of happiness." But experiencing authentic joy isn't just about feeling good. It's about feeling everything, which requires emotional inclusiveness." He also writes "authentic joy isn't an emotional state, but a state of being in which we accept all of life's offerings as required, especially challenging moments."

I first came to understand this a few years ago when I suffered lower back and hip problems after badly spraining my ankle. I was presented with many challenging moments. I shed a lot of tears as I lay on the floor struggling to cope with pain, frustration and helplessness wondering when the pain would end, when I would be able to move freely again. I wanted to be somewhere in the future where I was healed and healthy again. This year, I was presented with the opportunity to relearn this lesson suffering recurring bouts of stomach pain, the last two-month stint has just ended.

I realised that wanting to be anywhere other than where I was—fighting my reality—wasn’t helping me that it only made me more upset.

When I dropped my resistance and just accepted this is where I am right now I became peaceful because everything is allowed and included. I was also able to see the positives of my pain and injuries: becoming more embodied, exploring how I move in my body, learning a new way to hold myself and walk in the world, my strength and resilience.

I noticed how my spirit beyond my small self revelled in this experience as it revels in all of my life experience. This revelling is what I know now as a state of joy.

It’s only my mind that labels experiences and emotions as good or bad. My soul loves them all.

This Christmas season there are people I love who are missing from my physical world. Christmas of old is forever gone. And I am sad about this.

When I first wrote this article three years ago, I wasn’t feeling delighted, light-hearted or frivolously happy anticipating the approach of Christmas Day. I was open to the idea that maybe one day I would be, but how I felt right then was okay. We don't have to love Christmas. We don’t have to pretend to be happy.

This year it seems the tide has started to change. While I still feel sadness for what has gone and will never be again, I also feel my love for the magic, mystery and sacredness of Christmas growing within my heart, body and soul once again. I am so grateful that it is. I have missed it.

However you are feeling right now about Christmas and your life is okay. All feelings have their place in our human experience. It is all of our human life not just selective experiences or emotions such as passing moments of happiness that contribute to authentic joy.

Don't shun or resist the parts of you that hurt—love them. They are beautiful too. It is through experiencing all of life, all emotions that you will discover true joy.

With love and courage,

Kym xx