It’s the Most “Puzzling” Time of the Year

Coping with Grief and Loss during the Holidays

(Grief and Loss During the Holidays)

By Rev. Walt H. Windley, Senior Director of Spiritual Care and Grief Services, VIA Health Partners

It’s the day after Thanksgiving and the roads are a mess; this writer sits patiently in standing traffic just off I-485 near the Premium Outlets, tapping along on the steering wheel to traditional Christmas tunes in hopes of keeping one’s cool.

As that one inevitable car veers in and out of traffic making a mad dash, the colors of the traffic lights dance to and fro, almost taunting this driver and his lack of wisdom in once again venturing out among the masses on the busiest shopping day of the year. And while judgment says better, there is just something about this day and time of year that sparks something new and exciting that forgets the troubles of the past, like fresh snow covering the worn ground of a weary fall.

But the problem with this, like every good snow, is that it eventually melts, and one is left with the pieces of the past that can only be buried or hidden for so long. Most of us have dreams, maybe some that were first dreamt in childhood, that have morphed and evolved over the journey of our lives to form something of a picture.

We like to think of it as a Norman Rockwell masterpiece printed on the pieces of a puzzle. With age, experience and time, those pieces begin to take shape and form into something that reflects our hopes and lived adventures. And then the unexpected happens. We face the death of a loved one, get laid off from a job or are forced to relocate our families away from relatives and friends.

There is a sense of grief that begins to take shape, disrupting that portrait and causing the pieces of the puzzle to tumble unceremoniously to the floor. We scramble after those pieces, fighting for something that we can control. But at the end of the day, like the melted snow, we are left with pieces uncovered that no longer fit, unable to deny the weariness and pain below.

So, what does one do in this disheartened state, especially when the world is abuzz with cheer and good fortune, but internally we just feel the pain of what once was or would have been? 

We find ourselves living increasingly in a grief adverse culture, often shying away from expressions of mourning in both a public and private way. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, founder and CEO of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, makes a critical distinction between grief and mourning:

  • Grief is the internal feeling of loss and separation; it is the totality of emotions that one will experience on the inside.
  • Mourning is the expression of grief outside of oneself; or in other words, grief gone public.

Occasionally, one may begin to experience the feelings of grief but becomes “stuck” in that liminal space, unable to move forward to expressions of mourning while feeling “dead” while still breathing. Perturbation is a big, clinical word that simply assesses one’s ability or capacity to move and experience change. This type of movement or change may come slowly and feels more like baby steps than giant leaps. But hundreds of baby steps make room to honor memory while shaping legacy, both acknowledging the past while molding the future.

Grief and mourning are not a race or about a level of efficiency. It’s about transformational growth over reconciliation, viewing loss as the end of something/someone but not the end of relationship. Grief is intended to be felt, encouraging the mourner to slow down and turn inward, asking for surrender so that one can be found.

Maybe this holiday season, our work is to create space for those who grieve to be loved in the freedom of their mourning. Maybe we are the ones in need of acknowledging a loss, taking the time to move through the pain instead of fighting to circumvent it. Embracing the pain of loss unlocks the door to remembrance, allowing for wholeness and a search for meaning that honors who we have become because of those who first loved us.

The puzzle looks a little different and maybe a few pieces are missing. The smile doesn’t come quite as easily, and our mood feels more like the darkening of the early winter sky. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”

But hope, something good that has yet to be realized, burns within. And where there is light, the darkness has not overcome!

For more help, please visit