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  • Dr Rachel M Allan

Facing Loss, Separation and Grief at Christmas

The relentless agony of loss needs no introduction. The overwhelming sadness of grief; the never-ending ache of missing loved ones far away; the struggle and strain of separation; the silent devastation of stolen hope or possibility. New losses take us back to losses of the past; the waves hit us unexpectedly, privately, and without grace. We know that loss is part of life, and we feel its force in every season.

The emotions we carry around loss – be it recent or distant past – are often intensified during the Christmas season. Somehow, loss feels more unforgiving, distance more cruel, and disappointment more hopeless, at this time of year. A time of supposed joy, togetherness, and connection only highlights the reality of disconnection and isolation that many of us carry. Against the glow and the warmth of the season, inner despair feels all the more hollow and bleak.

The pain of loss can be closely linked with the discomfort that goes with uncertainty – uncertainty about the stability of our lives, the future, and what lies ahead. This can bring up a strong sense of threat and vulnerability. It is natural for us to try and manage this by creating sense of being in control; by manufacturing certainty and seeking assurance. Ultimately, this can take us on a long and tiring route to feeling more helpless and overwhelmed.

So what’s the alternative? What would it be like to let go of trying to control, and instead to face our grief, disappointment and fear in their entirety? What would it be like to allow the agonising feelings of loss to be part of our experience, without resistance? Is it possible to be open to the overwhelming feelings of loss without struggle or challenge? Part of doing this can be about recognising the magnitude of the loss that has occurred – extending to loss of possibility, loss of connection, loss of hope, loss of identity, or loss of a certain future that we once believed lay ahead.

This might be a manageable approach if our emotions fit with what we think we “should” be feeling. But what if our feelings around loss are not what we think are the “right” feelings? We might find ourselves comparing our situation to the situations of others, and thinking that our loss is small or insignificant by comparison. We might have feelings of anger, or shame, or fear, because we think our response to a loss or change has not been what it “should” be. We might judge ourselves for having what seems a disproportionate emotional reaction to a loss or separation, or think that after a certain period of time the loss should not continue to affect us in a certain way. When we enter into self-judging processes like this, we can end up compounding our pain, and ultimately extending our suffering.

Part of allowing ourselves to feel our grief fully might involve sharing those feelings with those around us who are offering their time and support. Speaking to others who might be sharing in the loss, or who have experienced loss themselves, can be a tremendous comfort. If our grief is a private one, it is worth bearing in mind that the feelings we are going through could be more common than we realise. We might be surprised by where we are met with a generous and comforting “I've been there”.

How would you respond to a friend or loved one facing loss or separation? You might take a gentle and patient approach; you might make sure you did not place them under unnecessary pressure or unfair demands. You might extend kindness and compassion; you might give up some of your time or your care to support them in whatever way they needed. We know how to approach caring for others going through an emotionally-difficult time, yet we struggle to apply the same level of compassion towards ourselves. We tend to be even harder and more unforgiving towards ourselves at times when we feel vulnerable or when we are facing uncertainly. We must be conscious and deliberate around our treatment of ourselves, and challenge ourselves to show the same grace, patience and mercy to ourselves as we would to anyone else. This might involve going against the grain of life-long tendencies, to include self-compassion and self-solidarity in difficult times.

Ultimately, the agony of loss can tell us something. If we can face it and get to know it, we might find that it points us in a certain direction. Whatever the loss, the longing or the tragedy may be, if it hurts us, then it is connected to something that matters to us deeply. In time, we might just manage to take our pain with us, and to honour its meaning in how we choose to go forward with our lives.

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© 2020 Rachel M. Allan.  Website by Yvonne Murray.  Images © Andy Allan Photography.

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DR RACHEL M. ALLAN 

CPsychol, DPsych, PG Dip, MA, MBPS