Grief and the Holidays

Maya, age 18 months, at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis

Maya, age 18 months, at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis

“As you approach the holidays, remember: grief is both a necessity and a privilege. It comes as a result of giving and receiving love.  Don’t let anyone take your grief away.  Love yourself.  Be patient with yourself.  And allow yourself to be surrounded by loving, caring people.”

— Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Center for Loss and Transition




The year she turned five, Maya played Santa Claus in her daycare’s Christmas pageant. Her fake white beard stuck straight out from her chin and when she cocked her head and belted “Ho, ho, ho,” I burst out laughing. This year, the image of her impish little face and her red Santa Claus suit stuffed with a pillow are vivid for me, and bring joy.

But looking at her photos as Santa made me sob during the years right after her death.  I missed her terribly and memories of holidays past were hard to bear. Looking back, I wonder how I got through them.

Grief is tough at any time. But during the holidays, it can seem unendurable. There’s no shortage of advice on how to manage grief at this time of year – a brief Internet search turns up dozens of tips. I view this smorgasbord of advice with mixed feelings:  gratitude that it exists and knowledge that there is no formula that works for everyone.

After 21 years of grief recovery, here’s what I’ve discovered:

Your grief is unique to you – it can’t be said often enough – we all grieve differently. For some, keeping busy is a panacea, for others slowing down is more healing. Do what works for you. New research shows that grief oscillates from day to day, even moment to moment. So staying tuned in to what you need is important

Grief changes over time – during the early months and years of grief, we feel raw and vulnerable. We may be in shock for many months. And when the shock wears off, in dreadful pain. It took seven years before I could truly say I enjoyed Christmas again. If we’re lucky, life is long and our grief will soften over time. Now, the memory of Maya in her Santa costume makes me smile. But it took a long time for the transition from tears and heartache to acceptance and even joy.

Self-care is always a wise approach – Grief is hard, exhausting work. Busy holiday schedules make it hard to slow down and make time for a relaxing bath, or favorite music, or even a massage. But these are essential activities for the bereaved. Long walks in nature, a funny movie, time with a close friend – whatever works for you. Make the time to care for your wounded heart.

Setting boundaries is key – It can be hard to say no to invitations or to let go of time-honored traditions. But in the early phase of grief, it is essential to set boundaries. Do only those things you truly want to do and only with people who bring you comfort and ease. Give up your fantasy of the perfect holiday.

Keep your loved one close – Each year I do something special in honor of Maya. At first, it was a bouquet of flowers in her stocking, or a gift to a charity in her name. Continue to keep your loved one part of your celebration. Share memories of holidays past. Love and grief are twin sisters. One could not exist without the other, so honor your love as well as your grief.

Live in the present – Enjoy all that is part of your life today. Let the people you love know how you feel. I’m fortunate to have my surviving daughter Meghan and her family to celebrate with. The older I get, the more grateful I become. This goes double at times when my friends and family are near, if only in spirit. If the holidays are hard for you, make a gratitude list at the end of each day with at least three things you appreciate. Even in the midst of loss, there is so much to be thankful for.

Above all, remember the return of the light. Ancient wisdom traditions celebrate the solstice, when long hours of darkness begin to shift to more moments of light. At some point in your journey, your grief will begin to shift. Celebrate that!




Bringing Back the Dead

Ken Budd recently published a post in The New York Times opinionator blog entitled “When Writers Expose the Dead” about writing a memoir closely describing his deceased father. He raises interesting questions for memoirists writing about people who have “turned in their dinner pails,” as the Brits say.

Since I wrote an entire book about a dead person, my oldest daughter Maya Lee, I found Budd’s musings provocative. In Swimming with Maya I search for the meaning of my daughter’s life and death, and forage deep in the messy interior of our relationship for answers.

Memoirists are often charged with narcissism. In most cases, I think unfairly. In order to bring readers deeply into the story and help them to engage with the characters it is necessary to tell more hard truths, and reveal more secrets, than most of us feel  comfortable with. Memoirs must be as compelling as novels, so their narrators must be authentic, deeply flawed characters in their own right. This is no easy feat.

Budd worries that his father can’t speak for himself, or refute any of the hard truths his son reveals in the book. As a writer, is he being fair to his dead? He writes, Once that narrative goes from the mind to the page, the dead can’t correct you; they can’t say, “Wait — that’s not how I remember it…”

I feel much the same about Maya. I doubt she would agree with everything I wrote in Swimming with Maya. In so many ways mothers and daughters can never see one another objectively. But I don’t claim objectivity. I make clear that my memoir is my story, not my daughters. In the prologue I tell readers I’m trying to understand “what it meant to be Maya’s mother.”

What engages us about memoir is the narrator’s voice, her dilemmas, her struggles and her ultimate triumph over adversity. Budd gives one of the best descriptions of writing memoir I’ve ever read:

Writing a memoir is a selfish act. For the memoir to work, to truly be alive, the honesty of the writing must outweigh the feelings of your subjects. As the central figure, you have to write what scares you: the drama resides in the dark places where you’re least comfortable. And that means exposing yourself. It’s like ripping off the front of your house and saying, “O.K., here we are, take a look — I’ll be in the shower if you want a closer view.” If you can’t do that — if you’re unwilling to bleed, naked, on the page — why write memoir?


Getting that naked publicly is an act of ultimate vulnerability and trust. You are trusting  readers to treat your story with tender care, to go as deeply in their reading as you did in your writing. There is an old saying, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”

As writers of memoir, this is the contract we make with your readers – to trust them and honor them with the deepest, most truthful story we can tell. To spill our vulnerability out on the pages of our books.

Ultimately, Budd discovers something important. Each reader sees a memoir through his or her own lens.

And yet I discovered something curious once the book was released: even though it’s my story on the page, readers see it through the prisms of their own lives. For all of a memoir’s exhibitionism, your tale is interpreted by readers to suit their own needs, their own experiences, their own journey. It’s a type of literary scavenging: they keep what serves them and reuse it for new purposes.

Ultimately, Budd realizes that through the process of writing, his father became more real to him, more present in his ongoing life. This is how I feel about Maya, too. Writing the book made her come alive in new and surprising ways, creating a patina of “afterlife” for a life she lived all too briefly.

Memoir is a kind of alchemy. I was changed by what I wrote. My private grief became a trail of breadcrumbs for others to follow. I appreciate Budd’s wrestling with these questions and finding answers that can guide all of us who write life stories. Rather than “exposing” our dead, I believe we are giving them a second life – and a place of honor in our lives.