Many hands can help mitigate holiday season grief

I have a day planner. I schedule things. I have to, because, as my father would so eloquently state it, “Steven, you couldn’t find your (back side) if you used both hands.” So, equipped with such comprehensive, mentoring insight, I learned to write things down. Appointments, travel plans, meetings, doctor’s appointments, haircuts, car repair — the duties of modern life.

The day planner comforts me. My friends tease me relentlessly about why I haven’t yet gone to “synced” electronic calendars, but I cling to the hard-copy day planner like Linus clings to his blanket. If I lost it, I’d have to buy a full page advertisement in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that said, “If you understand yourself to have scheduled an event that includes me any time in the next year, you’d better call me, because otherwise I’m not showing up.”

But you can’t schedule grief.

Grief is no respecter of our orderly, tidy, well-planned lives. The mystery of both life and death sits above and beyond the comforting group illusion we call “time and space.” Grief trumps everything.

Which is why, each year about this time, I hold a special place in my thoughts and prayers for the grieving ones. Grief is hard anytime. Whatever you think it might be like, you end up wishing it could be that easy. But it seems especially poignant to imagine the broken-hearted this time of year.

The quiet of the approaching winter solstice. A cultural festival (Christmas) that is awash in symbol, ceremony and tradition no matter which way you turn. Relentless invitations to nostalgia. Iconic images of family, hearth and home.

If this is your first December without a loved one, it’s likely his or her absence will feel especially present. This absent, weeping place in your heart will require your attention, even as you try to pay attention to the season’s festivities. It’s a tightrope walk on a razor blade.

As I said, my heart goes out to the newly grieving ones at Christmas.

Can I share some ideas with you?

First, the single worst thing you can do is to pretend. To try and “go through the motions” as if everything can be instantly pushed into normal. Because nothing will be normal. So, deciding to “cheer up” and put a mechanized Stepford Wife smile on your face complete with a slightly over-the-top sing-song in your voice — forget it.

Try these things instead …

■ Make the departed loved one’s absence overt. Make the absence present. Like the family who set a place for Grandpa at the Christmas dinner table, hanging his signature fedora over the top of the chair. Like the family who placed a 5-by-7 photo of a departed child right into the branches of the Christmas tree. Include a moment of silence and remembrance in the prayer over your family feast. Gather everyone into the backyard and release a balloon. Find some way to symbolize the departed’s absence, thereby making it present.

■ Expect tears. Expect to shift spontaneously between crying and laughing. I know it feels a little nuts, but I swear it’s normal. As the family gathers, expect “tag team” grief. OK, Mom, you sit there and weep, I’ll carve the turkey while Aunt Millie conjures gravy and the grandkids throw the football in the backyard. Whoops — now Mom’s up to help serve while Uncle Bob leans over the mantle and finds his tears.

■ Continue traditions by installing new people in the formerly held “office.” If the departed always made fresh cranberry sauce, then have her sister take over the job. If the departed had for years carved the turkey, then hand the knife to a sibling, an eldest son or grandson. I will never forget the first Christmas after my paternal grandfather died, when my grandmother handed me the family Bible and asked me to read the story of the Nativity.

■ Bring one new tradition. Something to signify how this family is, this year, different. It can be as simple as a new dish to the meal. A new way to pray around the table. Perhaps an act of charity/philanthropy for the community.

Hello begins goodbye/ That’s the way of this life/ So go ahead and cry/ Say all of your goodbyes/ So you can let go/ And say hello.

Grief is a noble art/ Each tear will stretch your heart/ There’s more room now for love/ God bless the grieving ones.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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