A letter to those struggling during this holiday season

To you,

I’m certainly no expert in grief, but one of the very first things I’ve learned about grief is that the world after that turning point is a series of firsts, all of which teach you something a little different about yourself, your emotions, your relationship with the past, and the world at large. Experiencing the holiday season for the first time without my sister is one of the hardest firsts for me.

Something else I’ve learned is that grief isn’t the same for everybody and it shouldn’t be. It’s an intensely personal thing – losing somebody, then navigating life after they’ve gone. Inevitably, your mind races, wondering if you could’ve changed the outcome, or if you buried all the meaningless issues before it was too late. The world around us moves forward, the earth continuously spinning while our internal world stops entirely.

The holidays are a time for reflection. They are a time for us to take stock of our world and to find a reason to be grateful. We are conditioned to scour the deepest parts of our mind for a reason – any reason – to be thankful since we’re told it could always be worse. We are encouraged to feel the full brunt of our emotions, of our grief, or to explore how we can figure out how we can find a way to continue on living in the most peaceful way but only to an extent that others think is “enough,” a point which may never come.

Your emotions, your thoughts, your feelings, all of the internal happenings in your mind are all valid. Your grief is valid and there is almost no way to grieve incorrectly (please don’t abuse any illicit substances to coat your pain or self-medicate).

The community of people that have felt the depths of sorrow that come with losing someone much too young feels like an exclusive club, albeit one that none of us enjoy being privy to. For the months between October and January, it’s like a never-ending onslaught of how great life is supposed to be and how far away that feels to us – Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful, Christmas a time to be introspective and merry, and New Years a time to take control of our lives to make the change we need to make to turn over a new leaf. This time of year is essentially a sensory overload in which conflicting emotions are rampant.

It’s completely okay to feel like this year is different because it is different. It’s also okay to feel okay or even happy at times, because human emotions and grief are weirdly complicated phenomena and there is only so much we can do to control how we process things that happen.

I’m not sure I would’ve believed somebody if they had told me a year or two ago where I’d be in the exact moment I am as I write this. I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop in Chicago on Christmas Eve, writing a letter to those grieving a loved one – a letter I’m honestly mostly writing to myself since I need it – as I grieve my sister. The last year of my life has been the hardest of my life, filled with my deepest lows but also with some of my highest highs, yet I feel like I should feel worse than I do. Somehow, I feel oddly at peace. I feel at peace knowing my sister’s life, one that was harder than most and filled with dreadful suffering, is over. It feels callous to say that, but she deserved rest, and my parents and I deserve peace. A world without constant worrying about my sister and where my sister suffers on more days than not is the one we’re confined to for the rest of our lives. We can’t change that and spending our precious time obsessing about how we could have changed the past won’t change the past and will only rob us of a better future we deserve and that Alyssa would have wanted.

Not everybody will feel this way, though. One of the strange luxuries of dealing with chronic disease is that I prepared for this future as best as I could have for years. No matter how much you prepare, you can never be fully ready for a world without that person, but it allowed me a mental respite and provided me mental fortitude for when that day came. I hope people who are struggling this time of year and all the time will practice some self-care, self-love, and forgiveness. Give yourself what you would give to somebody you love experiencing what you’re going through. Allow yourself to recognize that you are in pain and everybody’s pain is different, so let yourself feel your emotions and, if you can, learn from them. If you can’t, that’s fine too, but feeling the emotions is important.

Grief is such a powerful human experience because it forces us to consider our own existence. It feels wrong that the world exists with a person’s spirit one day only for it to be gone the next. Our relationships with others radically alter our brains, neural connections literally being wired and re-wired when we create memories with others. It’s why grief makes us feel so powerless; it feels like it should be simple to just accept that things have happened, but our brain craves that serotonin release that comes with positive experiences relating to our relationships. When we relive the memories we have with somebody, our memories are altered, molded differently by who we are today than when the memory occurred. That’s precisely why it’s so painful to envision memories of a good time with a loved one after they’ve passed; we can’t feel the same way when it occurred because it’s now plastered with a sheen of nostalgia and sorrow. This is also why grief is so abnormal; since our brains are all so different, with different genetic proclivities, different environments, different experiences, it’s impossible for us to all process heavy emotions the same way.

My hope for those that are struggling right now is that they – you, if you’re struggling right now – recognize that your emotions are okay. Time will continue moving forward and it’s okay if you’re not feeling in the holiday spirit right now. The people that mean the most to you will understand your emotions and your mental health is more important than forcing yourself to feel something that isn’t there. I hope that you can do what you need to do to recognize the people that you’ve lost in the best way you can, even if that means accepting that they are gone and that you have to allow yourself to move forward.

Know that there are people around the world experiencing a similar blend of emotions and that, even if you don’t know them at all, they are there with you in spirit, just as you are with those that are feeling this way too. Know that the world around you, in all of its apparent happiness, is not what you should use to gauge where you are in the grief process or where you are in life. There is no correct barometer to gauge how you are feeling at all.

I miss my sister so damn much. That pain will likely never go away entirely, but using that pain to be authentic, to write pieces like this, to hopefully take my time in life and embrace the full spectrum of human emotions, is what I take away from her life and her death.

Here is where I encourage you to give yourself compassion everyday, but especially this time of year. You deserve it. You are doing okay. You will continue to be okay. I am with you today.

With love,