The holidays are all about joy: carols of joy, expectations of joy, painful awareness of the lack of joy when something’s not right in your life. If you’re grieving a loss, you might wonder if joy is ever possible again, when nothing is the way you expected it to be.
It’s been five holiday seasons since my husband died. Five times through the cycle of decorating, shopping, baking, socializing, and missing him. Even after five years, I can still find myself viewing my experience through the lens of loss: I’m picking out gifts for our daughter and wishing he were here to strategize with. I’m choosing photos for our holiday cards and he’s not in any of them. I’m attending parties as a single person in a sea of couples. Each year has brought its own challenges and triumphs, from that first year when just surviving intact was my goal, to last year, when I finally broke with family tradition (my husband’s family, not mine!) and bought an artificial tree.
My triumph for this year snuck up on me. Around the Christmas dinner table, for the first time since Steve’s death, a warm, wonderful peace came over me. I realized that I felt fully and completely blessed and content in my holiday celebrating. I found myself not wishing things were different, not imaging how it would be if he were here, not feeling like I was making the best of a bad situation. The loved ones around the table weren’t all the ones I would have expected back when Steve and I were married, but they are my loved ones now. They are my family of choice, the people I have built my new life with, and in that moment I was filled with joy.
I strongly believe that peace, contentment, gratitude and joy for the life you have, even if it’s not the life you wanted or expected to have, is possible for you too. It requires releasing that grip on what might have been, what should have been. The cliche is true: you can’t embrace what’s here now if you’re still holding on to what used to be.
And it’s not a betrayal of your loved one, of your former life, of your belief in your ability to control your destiny. If I loved Steve and the life we built, if I felt that I had created that life consciously and with intent, how can I now be grateful for something completely different?
Because life doesn’t run on a single track like a train. There isn’t just one story line that can make you happy. If you can let go of expectations, there are many possible stories that end in joy. Let your current situation, regardless of how you got to it, be one of them, just for a moment. And just maybe you’ll find joy again.