In my heARTwork over at The Creative Grief Studio, we coined the phrase ANDspace to talk about how grief experience so often does not fit in our binary based world. This has been especially true for me in my personal grief experience of the holidays since my son died in 1999. Also in my work with others who are having grief experiences, I see clearly how the ANDspace is so needed during the holidays. Yet, in our cultural, binary set-up, it is often thought to be an either/or, as in, you are either grieving OR you are healed. You are bereaved OR you’ve found “closure” (don’t get me started on how much I dislike concepts of “closure”). You are here to celebrate OR you are bringing us down! Ugh. What a terrible paradigm to offer to people in the midst of grief experiences!
I tell you truly that it is entirely possible for an ANDspace like grieving AND celebrating to exist. It may not follow the script of tradition that was written and executed year after year prior to your encounter with grief, but it is possible to have ANDspace holidays if only we’d allow ourselves and others the space to notice the options and create what is a better fit now.
How do you practice noticing the ANDspace?
So how can we try to use this very holiday season to notice how many times we are imposing on ourselves or others are imposing upon us an either/or such as, “You have to make choice,” grieve OR celebrate, in order to “properly” belong to whatever traditions are unfolding?
Well, you might start off by letting your mind touch back on some previous experience you’ve had where the either/or came up during holidays or gatherings. As the mother of a dead child, my mind lights back on previous Mother’s Days where no space was made to acknowledge a mother like me. I remember the happy scene, the pretty spring flowers, the scent of delicious food. And I remember the punch in the gut I felt when potted flowers were given out to all the moms, supposedly. I was not included. I had no child to show, dressed in pretty bunny suit or new dress. There was no space for tears because this was a celebration. I remember hearing from (maybe) well-intentioned folks that this was a day for celebration. “Be happy for the others.”
Yeah. That gut punch. THAT has become one of my flags. I know that feeling in my body now. My mind registers it, and I do not just pass it by trying to fit in to conform and belong. Rather, I’ve encouraged my mind to notice that gut punch as a little waving flag that is signaling, “Over here!! Something to pay attention to here!!”
So you can do that, too, maybe. As you let your mind touch back on some previous experience like this, what do you notice? Was it a thought that popped up in your head first? Did you feel something in-body first? How did you notice that something was off about the moment? What happened when you realized you were being told you had to pick either/or? Once you are able to say a bit about how you first noticed this happening, make note somewhere about these signs or flags. Write them up in a journal maybe. Or do a voice recorded note on your phone. Do something to make more conscious note of how you notice the either/or moments. And then you can try to use this information as a basis to notice if this kind of thing happens again while moving through the coming holiday season.
What do I do with all that noticing?
One of the most helpful tips a fellow grief coach gave me years ago was to allow these noticings to be a full-stop sign. When my consciousness realizes the little flag of the gut punch is waving, let that be a pause space where I say to self, “Oh, hang on! One moment here! What is the ANDspace option available to me here and now?”
So for instance, remembering my example above, if I had noticed and paused and considered, what ANDspace options might have opened up to me? Well, I could have let the tears flow AND spoken up to say, “You forgot this mom over here.” I could have let it happen as it happened, AND followed up afterward with the folks who coordinated the gift giving to let them know how they might improve inclusion for the following year.
And something I notice while working with other families and individuals is that, often, it takes a review of past experiences to generate more inclusive planning for future experiences. Sometimes things unfold for us to make changes in the moment when either/or comes up, but give yourself grace and space to know that sometimes the moment is what it is AND you can use the experience to make different circumstances happen next time.
So reviewing your past experiences, how might you make choices in a future moment to find the ANDspace? How might you use this review to set up the circumstances to be more inclusive of the ANDspace for coming holidays?
The following are examples, amalgamations (altered to protect privacy), to illustrate how one might bring the ANDspace to life.
Living, breathing ANDspace
- In one family, Christmas gathering happened at the great grandparents’ home. Along the mantelpiece, stockings were hung, one for each child in the family. The first Christmas after the death of one of the great grandchildren, the stockings were hung, but there was not one with the name of the child who died on it. The parents, who were grieving their way through the first holiday season post-death, were devastated to hear that “Christmas was no place for grief.” Additionally, they were told, “The child who died is not to be mentioned, especially not to the other living children in attendance.” In the moment of it, the parents were too shocked to find an ANDspace. But in seeking support after those first holidays, they came up with a plan for future holidays. They would hang their child’s stocking at their own home. They would invite family, adults and children, to write notes or draw pictures that would then be added to the stocking in their home. It turned out that while the ANDspace of grief AND the holidays was not something the great grandparents could abide, there were many other family members who sent letters, drawings, cards to say things like, “We, too, are thinking of what your child would look like this year,” OR “We planted a tree in your child’s name this year. Happy Christmas.”
- In a small town, there was an annual Community Dinner for the holidays. It was a free meal, community made with food donated by the community. One year, as volunteers were putting out name cards for attendees to find their seats, a woman was enduring her first holidays since the death of her husband. She was struck that there was no longer a name card for her husband as there had been for the several decades prior at this same dinner. The volunteers collaborated around her experience and came up with the idea to have candles in glass containers on the tables for dinner. They also put sharpie pens on the table centers around the candles. Attendees were invited to write on the glass before the candles were lit, to show the names of the loved ones they were missing AND wanted to include in this celebration tonight. Then the candles were lit during dinner and the loved ones who were named on the containers were spotlighted by the dancing candlelight.
- Group rituals are very meaningful to some people especially as they are navigating their first holidays – or really any subsequent holidays – after the death of a loved one. Grief experiences can leave us feeling very isolated though, and sometimes, never more so, than at holiday ceremonies where grief is simply not included and often, not welcome. There are implicit or explicit community/social rules that say holiday ceremony is only for celebrating with no room for grief. To address this either/or, many people have begun to create ANDspace opportunities for ceremony.One family enjoys Midnight Mass as ceremony for Christmas, but grief is not included as part of this. So some churches have responded by offering additional Blue Christmas services that are precisely about grief experience, no matter your circumstance, death OR non-death related grief.
Another community honors the season with a Solstice ritual of lining main street with paper bags of sand and tealight candles, all lit at the same time, in the dark, on the longest night of the year. They decided, as a way to be more inclusive of grief experiences, people are invited to write the names of the dead on the bags before they are lit. Once lit, the street is lined with, not only our living and breathing community attending this celebration, but also our re-membered community members, too.
It is my hope that this article is just a first spark for you as you begin to notice where either/or limitations might be curtailing your holiday experiences after grief has come into your life. My wish for you is to notice the waving flag, use that notice to give yourself a big pause, and then for you to have/create the ANDspace your heart needs and wants this season.
Author bio: Kara LC Jones is the Creative Grief Educator and heARTist behind GriefAndCreativity.com. She co-founded both the Creative Grief Studio and KotaPress. She’s a Carnegie Mellon graduate who interned 3 years at Mister Rogers Neighborhood back in the day and has spent the last couple of decades exploring creative approaches to grief experience.