Grieving and Supporting Others Who Are Grieving during the Holidays

I’ve been trying to focus during the holidays on generosity toward myself and others. Grieving mindfully means generously giving myself the time and space to be sad. Accepting that I did the best for Tom when he was alive means generously remembering that I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when I made decisions that I may second-guess now. Feeling connected to others right now means generously attributing positive motives to folks who don’t understand why I am still so sad.

One resource that has helped me feel generous recently is a book a fellow griever told me about, Narratives of Hope and Grief in Higher Education, edited by Stephanie Anne Shelton and Nicole Sieben. I immediately tracked it down (the Auraria Library has the eBook version) and read the chapters by folks who had lost a romantic partner (all women who lost men and all to cancer). I skimmed many of the other chapters, which covered the loss of parents, children, and other loved ones. Every single one was eloquent, beautiful, and touching. I highly recommend this book to anyone in higher education who wants to better understand grief—and I daresay even folks outside of academia will find plenty that resonates in this collection. Academics don’t grieve any differently from non-academics—we just sometimes use bigger words to talk about our grief.  

In the introduction to the collection, Shelton and Sieben describe higher ed’s engagement with grief as “detached,” and when it does exist, focused more on students than on faculty and staff. They mention that the rare acknowledgments of grief that do occur “typically either consider the ways that supporting students’ trauma affects faculty (Kafka, 2019) or focus on the aftermaths of tragedy for a campus, such as an academic’s suicide (Pettit, 2019). Much as we discovered in our own experiences, higher education regularly fails to offer sufficient support to grieving students, and it is utterly unprepared and uncertain of how to support faculty and staff members’ pain.” These observations are consistent with my experience, and were echoed in a recent tweet by Ula Klein:

While Klein isn’t talking specifically about grief, her tweet reflects the typical attitude of institutions toward the employees who work regularly with traumatized people: suck it up and focus on the client/student/customer.

There are three essays in the collection that focus on a widowed faculty member and each one offered insights and reflections that resonated deeply with me:

  • Deanna Day talks about the alienation that comes with being the only widowed person in a group of colleagues and how it can be easier to talk with students about grieving than with other academics. I have found this to be true, as well. My students have been so kind about reaching out to me to express sympathy and thanking me for sharing with them that I am grieving. A student who walked with me from class to my office earlier this week asked when we got to my office, “Do you want to keep talking or would you rather be alone?” I was touched by the acknowledgment that interacting socially with others can be taxing for grieving folks. This is a level of awareness and sensitivity I have not found in most of my colleagues.

I don’t fault my colleagues for being unsure of how to deal with me. We’ve been socialized to see grieving at work as unprofessional. Perhaps my students haven’t yet been socialized into that idea or maybe this generation of students’ rejection of many of the traditional ideas about employment includes dismissing the idea that emotion can be left at the door when you clock in.

  • Angela Kinder Mains expresses how her late husband’s fight with lymphoma motivated her “to be the best version of [her]self . . .  during [his] final months.” During that time, she—like I—found surprising strength, patience, and fortitude in herself, and she describes herself as “grateful and proud of that.” A few months after her husband’s death, however, she says “the honeymoon stage of grief was over, and [she] entered into the more difficult part of the work. I recognized that I did not actually know who, or what, I was supposed to be without Jer.” Boy, oh boy, do I connect with that. As I have shared on this blog, I was surprised by the intensity of grief I began experiencing around Halloween.
  • The final piece in the collection dealing with the loss of a partner is by Nancy Rankie Shelton. She writes about how folks were supportive and sympathetic in her first year of grieving but lost patience when her grieving continued beyond that. I may revisit this essay if/when I get to the point where others around me seem less willing to tolerate my grieving.

The entire collection highlights how out of touch both academics and the general public are with grief, and reminded me that until Tom died, I, too, was a bit out of touch with grief. This prompted me to think about how confusing it must be for people who are not currently in the grips of grief to figure out how to navigate conversations during the holidays with those of us who are. On the one hand, the holidays are—supposedly, at least—about jolliness and celebration. On the other hand, the holidays can be particularly trying and isolating for grieving people, who may come across during this season as withdrawn, exhausted, and/or bitter. How is a person who wants to celebrate and spread cheer to know how to approach the person who wants nothing more than to be left alone and assumes their grief vibes communicate this?

As the person in this scenario who wants nothing more than to be left alone, I am generously thanking everyone who invites me to a holiday soiree for thinking of me and assuring them that I would prefer to be alone at this time. I don’t apologize for turning down the invitation, I just express how much I appreciate the thought and give a firm no. This strategy has worked well for me so far.

If you are the person in the scenario getting your invitation rejected, please don’t argue. Don’t ask, “Are you sure?” Don’t tell the grieving person how much fun they are going to miss. Don’t respond to their no with, “Well, why don’t you think about it and get back to me?” Don’t get in touch a few days later to see if they changed their mind. All you have to say is, “I understand and you’ll be in my thoughts. Please feel free to come if you change your mind.” (I’ve written on the subject of folks assertively trying to spread cheer before.)

Finally, in the spirit of generosity, if you are looking for gift ideas for someone who is experiencing difficult circumstances during the holidays, here are some lists I found particularly helpful:

25+ Cozy Gifts for Someone Who’s Bedridden or on Bed Rest

12 Christmas Memorial Gift Ideas to Remember a Loved One

P.S. There’s one more essay in the Shelton and Sieben collection that I want to call attention to: “Misdiagnosing Generational Trauma and Grief: I Am Not Angry; I Am Triggered and Grief Stricken” by Nneka Greene. Greene articulates the experience of a woman of color who has “encountered grief that is not from the loss of a loved one. The experiences include assaults on [her] existence as a Black woman navigating a majority White academy, a Black woman living in a country that finds her skin dangerous, a Black woman working alongside law enforcement that continues to kill her unarmed kinsmen, a Black woman in conflict with a faith that supports the separation and denial of migrant families from safety and better lives.”