December 14, 2019

Finding the Joy & the Beauty & the Wakefulness of Holiday Grief.

Often, we portray things in black and white.

We think we must be either enjoying the holidays or grieving, when usually we are doing a little of both.

We all know that the holidays are not rose-coloured champagne glasses for everyone. For some people, this is the hardest time of year, when family gatherings remind us of those we’ve lost.

Can we still enjoy the holidays when we carry sorrow within?

Of course we can.

It’s precisely because we have learned how to grieve well that adds a fullness to our joy, a wholeness to life that would otherwise be missing in just gay frivolity. Sorrow adds a depth, a richer, more full-tasting flavour to happiness.

The preciousness of those of us who remain together is not lost on those who have lost. We know that each moment together is sacred, as we never truly know what is around the corner in life.

Instead of rushing through the holidays in a scrunched up ball of stress and nerves, we are the ones who slow down. We realize the joy of this time is in being together.

Being is a state we rarely access these days. With phones constantly at the ready for that perfect holiday photo, we often favour documenting over actually experiencing our lives.

But for those who have lost, we don’t allow precious moments of wakefulness and togetherness to go un-lived.

There is something a little misguided in separating joy from grief.

For those of us who have lost someone close to us—a mother or father, a sibling, a past lover or friend—we often feel their presence most at this time of year. Does this mean we are in a constant state of pain? Far from it.

Feeling the presence of those who have passed on is a sign of our deepening love. The tears we cry are not for our own misfortune, but for the beauty of the time shared together. It is a feeling of full-hearted sadness, which is also a kind of joy.

In Shambhala Buddhism, they call this feeling the “genuine heart of sadness.” Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche says:

“If you search for awakened heart, if you put your hand through your rib cage and feel for it, there is nothing there except for tenderness. You feel sore and soft, and if you open your eyes to the rest of the world, you feel tremendous sadness. It occurs because your heart is completely exposed.”

Grieving, then, becomes not such an arduous journey. Often we beat ourselves up about our grief process. Most of us, if we’re honest, aren’t sure if we’re doing it right. But, in Buddhist teachings, the prescription for grief is not all that different from other intense emotions like anger, loneliness, or regret.

The balm of wakefulness is a curative for all these afflictions. It is only arduous if we avoid sitting with ourselves and our experience.

It is, in some ways, the easiest thing to do and the one we spend the most time avoiding. If we can learn how to sit with ourselves in the depths of our sorrow, we cultivate an ability to be freshly inspired by the present moment. Our tears literally cleanse the film from our eyes, and life becomes more beautiful than it was before. This is the source of true, authentic joy.

We become a little less afraid of opening our hearts to others. And in social situations, this is what we are actually seeking. Interestingly, the balm of wakefulness also helps us open up to others and more fully enjoy life.

Openhearted connection is the essence of the holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hannukah or Winter Solstice, it is a yearning within at this dark time of the year to connect with those we love. To draw them close, to love them, and to be reminded of their love for you.

Let this beautiful journey toward wholeness start from within. Gathering all the precious memories of those who have passed on close to our heart at this time of year, we can more wakefully meet those who surround us with tender, loving kindness.

This holiday season, instead of feeling shame for your feelings of sorrow or aloneness, try instead holding it close. Slow down a little, and learn to embrace all the wonderful colours of your experience.

If tears come, let them come. And reach out to others when you need a helping hand. Know you are not alone. That everyone carries some secret sorrow within.

Let this holiday season be one where we lean in to the full spectrum of our lives, and embrace joy and sorrow as two family members coming for dinner, longing to be reunited.

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