When the holidays hurt

Christmas is marketed as the happiest season of all, but for those who have lost a loved one, the holidays can be a very painful time. Amy Mezulis, professor of clinical psychology, has a deep professional understanding of grief, along with first-hand experience navigating the complexities of the holiday season in a time of loss.

Her husband, Matt Bencke, died in the fall of 2017 from an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. Matt had only been diagnosed 12 weeks before his death.

“We have two daughters, and Thanksgiving has always been the most important holiday in our family,” Mezulis said. “The focus of Thanksgiving is food and gathering with loved ones. Gratitude is the center, which is a very important life value to me. Without a doubt, Thanksgiving was the hardest without Matt.”

For 12 years, the family alternated between trips to Hawaii and celebrating Thanksgiving at home. The year Matt passed away, they had already booked their trip to Maui before Matt was diagnosed.

“The trip was planned for what turned out to be only two weeks after the memorial service,” Mezulis said. “That became our first holiday decision after he died. Do we stay home, or do we go? Ultimately — and this became a guiding principle for us — we simply asked ourselves which would feel less bad: Miss this important family tradition, or go without Matt?”

“It’s a human instinct, when things are hard, to avoid or escape. In the wake of grieving, many people make quick decisions like selling houses or skipping gatherings to avoid any kind of reminders.” — Amy Mezulis

They decided to go. “There’s no right or wrong answer in a time of grief,” she said. “Some bereaved people feel it’s important to maintain the same traditions to honor the person who has died. But others find traditions too painful while grieving and find more comfort in starting new traditions. The girls and I talked it over and decided to go to the same place in Hawaii we’d always gone and be sad there. It was critical for us to feel that we were still a family, even though we were missing a person.”

Mezulis was also concerned that if the family stayed home, they’d experience a triple loss — not only the loss of Matt and their sense of family, but also the loss of their beloved holiday tradition, which could lead to additional grief.

“In Hawaii we did all the familiar things,” Mezulis said. “We ate in the same restaurants, stayed in the same hotel. It was heartbreakingly awful but also beautiful. We spent the whole weekend with memories, telling stories about Matt.”
They also took some of Matt’s ashes and distributed them on a familiar stretch of beach.

“It became a new thing, recognizing the day. It was beautiful and sacred. But we were also exhausted from the activity and emotion surrounding Matt’s hospice, death, and the overwhelming details that follow the passing of a spouse. We made it to Hawaii, but I remember sleeping 11 hours, four nights in a row.”
For those who are grieving, the holiday progression of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s gatherings can feel like a triple blow.

“We went through another big decision at Christmastime,” Mezulis said. “We always go to Cle Elum and spend Christmas with my parents, and we host a big New Year’s Eve party with family friends. We discovered a way of following a tradition similar to what we’d done before but making it new by adding different people — using it as an opportunity to celebrate and remember. That was the one thing Matt asked for. He knew he was dying, and he asked to simply be remembered, to remain part of the family.”

Mezulis and her daughters found other ways to mark his passing throughout the year. On Matt’s birthday, they celebrate him with his favorite foods and a cake. On the anniversary of his death, they take time to feel sad and remember. But despite new traditions, the holidays are the time they miss Matt the most.

“We keep our traditions,” Mezulis says. “Since our girls were small, we’ve kept doing the same Thanksgiving craft they did in preschool: We trace our hands on colored paper to look like turkeys and write notes of gratitude. Every year at least one of the notes says, ‘I’m grateful that Dad is in heaven, and he’s not in pain anymore.’ He’s still part of our table, and we still feel that he’s there.”

One of the challenges for Mezulis has been facing other losses that bring up fresh grief. In 2020, much-anticipated family gatherings were canceled because of COVID-19. Then a close family friend died on Christmas night, in a situation much like what Matt suffered. She had a short battle with a rare, aggressive cancer and died without much warning.

“It was really hard for the group of friends who normally gather at the holidays,” Mezulis said. “It was like replaying Matt’s death all over again. It’s going to be very hard this year to have two people missing. The normal holiday parties and New Year’s event will be when it is most obvious that they’re not with us. So we enter another round of grieving.”

As a professional psychologist, Mezulis specializes in depression and adolescent development, which gave her some skills to help her daughters through the loss of their father.

“I’m grateful for my training,” she said. “My daughters were 12 and 15 when Matt died. In addition to my concern as a mother, I had professional expertise to fall back on. I knew the importance of getting them into counseling, a place where they could talk about their feelings. But still, I can’t separate the human part and the professional parts of myself. Even though I’m a trained psychologist, my own grief journey was sometimes mystifying.”

On the first anniversary of Matt’s death, Mezulis remembers feeling very disheartened about her progress. It had been a year, and she imagined she would feel better than she did.

broken Christmas ornament
Illustration by Blake Cale

“I thought something magical would happen at the one-year mark,” she said. “What I missed seeing — and this is ironic, since I’m a psychologist — was that we actually weren’t even grieving yet. There was so much shock around Matt’s diagnosis and rapid death that I realized even after a year, we were still experiencing a trauma response instead of grief. There are big chunks of time I don’t remember. We were in survival mode.”

She recalls the many decisions and details a surviving spouse must handle: insurance, public records, notifying friends, canceling contracts, settlements.

“Somehow it all got done,” she said. “The girls made it to school, and we kept going. But I don’t remember feeling sad. I just remember numbness. It took a long time to move from that survival response into grieving.”

According to Mezulis, it’s helpful to recognize the difference between shock and grief. Grief, she says, typically has emotion attached to it — anger or sadness — while shock can leave a person with little feeling at all.

“I’m sure I cried,” she said, “but inside I felt pretty empty. I was going through the motions. When Matt got sick, things happened very quickly. From the time of his diagnosis, he was hospitalized four times in six weeks, then spent just six weeks on home hospice. It felt like I didn’t have time to grieve, to even sit down long enough to be sad or angry. That would have been a luxury. There was so much to do. The kids were in school, and I had a job to maintain, along with graduate students to train. I was so busy keeping us from drowning under the to-do list that all I could do was put one foot in front of the other.”

Once life settled down, Mezulis thought she’d experience closure, or at least progress. “But I was only beginning to know the emotional reality,” she said. “Grief is not linear. Everyone has their own trajectory.”

Mezulis is clear there are no “best practices” to navigate the holiday season.

“The idea of ‘best’ practices sounds like judgment,” she said. “My suggestion is do whatever you need to in order to get through it.”

Still, Mezulis shared some principles that might help. Communication is first on the list.

“A loss impacts many people,” Mezulis said, “though each may have had a different relationship with the departed person. And though not all losses are ‘equal’ in impact, losses are shared. I recommend talking with others who were also affected by the loss. In our family, we communicated about what we each needed, putting all the needs on the table. It’s a time to come close to one another. Losses teach us how important our relationships truly are.”

If one danger of grief is getting stuck in remembrance, Mezulis says, the other danger is avoidance.

“It’s a human instinct, when things are hard, to avoid or escape. In the wake of grieving, many people make quick decisions like selling their houses or skipping gatherings to avoid any kind of reminders. While that may be the right thing to do, we need to be aware of our instinct for avoidance. A break from things that trigger grief might get you through the day — and that’s OK — but ultimately we can’t avoid our losses forever.”

Mezulis offered a few ideas for how to help people struggling through the holidays. First, combat the temptation to avoid hard topics. A grieving person can feel even worse if no one is willing to bring up the name of the departed loved one. One of the best things a friend can do is open the door to communication.

“It’s OK to ask, ‘How are the holidays for you?’ ‘How can I support you?’ Say the name of the lost loved one. Tell a story. Share a remembrance, even long after the person has died. Bring the lost person back into the event.”

People care about our pain, Mezulis said, but they may not want to upset us by mentioning something hard. On the other hand, the grieving person doesn’t want to burden others with their sadness.

“We all end up dancing around the painful issue, which becomes the elephant in the room,” she said. “In my case, I talk about my husband, and I don’t want people to be afraid to talk about him, too. He’s a huge part of my life, and I try to make it normal to talk about him.”

Mezulis identifies herself as someone who lives in the gray. Life is messy with few absolutes, she says, but one way to turn that to our advantage in a time of grief is the principle of both/and.

“We can move forward and enjoy life, and we can honor and remember,” she said. “Grief is a balance of those two things. We don’t pretend the loss didn’t happen. In our family, we remember Matt is gone, but we don’t want to get so drawn into missing him that we’re miserable. He wanted us to remember him and to continue living life and enjoying the holidays.”

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