JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Thanks…grieving

Posted by on Nov 30, 2019

For those of you that love the holidays, this is not for you. This is for the silent, or not-so-silent holiday sufferers, the ones who “closet” their disappointment, disdain, and dread of the holidays, carrying on as if they were like all the others, either loving or pretending to love the holidays. Dark, I know, but honest. Each year, I try to remember two things: what it was like to love the holidays, and when I lost that lovin’ feeling. Then, I count the days until January 2nd. It’s hard to trace and even harder to define. I find holidays and anniversaries a bit silly in general, but maybe that is just me. Why is it that we need a national holiday to connect to and express our gratitude? Have we become that ungrateful? Umm, yes. I think back to holidays as a child and they are nothing like the experience today. Again, I wonder if that is because of my innocent and unexperienced childhood psyche, you know, the one that wanted to find everything wonderful. Or, because things were decidedly simpler then and family feuds and fusses were had in person, on the phone, and later, via answering machine. Now, we text nasty, divisive notes to the ones we love, able to deliver at all times of day or night, to express our need to be heard and be right. It wouldn’t surprise me if civility is to be taken out of the dictionary soon…like so many other words that have literally lost their meaning.

Thursday, I received a dozen text messages wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. Some from family, some being the only connection I had with that part of my family. Some from people I haven’t seen or heard from in months or even years. With each stranger’s text, I wondered if I was just part of the scrolling through the contacts obligatory or guilt-removing moment for the season. A part of me resents the intrusion on my day; the return obligation to celebrate something I loathe celebrating. I have no desire to play this game of Thanksgiving tag, but I do it anyway, because in truth, I care about them. A part of me appreciates the connection and a part of me resents it. The ire is confusing. I am not usually offended by a random or infrequent text, however, if it takes a holiday for you to give a shit about me, then is that really shit? I giggle to myself as my own resigned, unabashedly negative nastiness seeps out of my fingers as I type this. The Grinch has nothing on me for these two months of what I see as materialism, greed, mindless spending, endless waste, guilty gifting of useless crap, and the ever-present empty epithets.

Mette and I had our wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. We both forgot. I was traveling and had called her as I waited at the arrivals curb to see a friend for dinner. “Happy Anniversary,” she said almost curiously, baiting me. “What anniversary?” I asked, a bit worn from the travel and honestly confused. “Happy Anniversary,” she emphasized with innocently gloating, funny energy of knowing I had no idea what she was talking about. I could hear her smiling from the curb, making me smile, too. “What anniversary?” I asked hoping for a crumb, which would undoubtably lead to well-deserved mocking and laughing. Nothing. I looked at my watch to examine the date and search my rusted-over memory bank. The anniversary we have celebrated for seventeen years is the day we got together, and that was last month. I always remember that one, but what the heck was today? I looked at the date, remembered the month, and it hit me. “Oh shit!” I burst out laughing so hard, people around me began to stare. She was laughing in unison, enjoying my simultaneous embarrassment and elation. “Who reminded you?” I asked once I was able to speak, “because I know you didn’t remember!” She laughed even harder having now been found out, “My brother.” Bwahahahaha! We were both laughing so hard, it was delicious. Her brother performed our ceremony, so it has a special place in his special heart. Mette rarely remembers my birthday correctly and always asks when filling out paperwork. It doesn’t matter to me though, because she loves me the same every day of every year. When she asks me, “What do you wish for your birthday?” I struggle to answer because I feel like I have everything. Same thing for Christmas or Hanukkah, which she also forgets every year. We don’t need a reason to buy something for each other or to ask something of each other, making holidays redundant, or even unnecessary.

As a psychologist, I see the pressure holidays put upon people. It is undoubtably the most stressful time of the year and should be the easiest. But human beings are context-dependent and so, without any awareness, we conform ourselves to what is around us, namely our environment. Media, advertising, print, film, and tv give us an impossible standard to live up to. The arc of the story for entertainment purposes is rarely found in real life. I recently read an article in NPR about siblings and the important and life-long roles siblings play. Having three siblings, almost everything about this article resonated with me: the early relationship development trials that naturally form at home, the adult tribulations that can (and will) happen, and the fact that we typically study sibling relationships in children. The author shared her story of a break with her brother and the sadness the disconnect created for her. And then, like magic and without explanation, he flew, last minute, from across the ocean, to join her and her family for Thanksgiving. Her gratitude was now in full force, as if she had nothing else to be grateful for prior to this holiday miracle. Cue the music, cue the tears, cue the hugs and instant forgiveness-in-a-box. But real life rarely works out this way, leaving us wanton for something resembling the daily grind we return to as we put down the article or turn off the tv.

The practice of gratitude has made headlines over the last decade, mostly because of what neuroscience has found. Of course, there has to be a benefit, a dividend before being grateful daily has traction. Gratitude produces changes in brain chemistry, which make you feel and perform better. Just search the word and you will find Forbes, Huffpost, Fast Company, HBR, and even scientific publications with incredible findings on gratitude. Sorry for the attitude but we have fallen so far off the mark, I wonder if we can ever find our way back. I coach executives to put reminders in their calendars to practice gratitude. An alarm to remind someone who is in the top percentage of money earners in the country to look at one of their smart phones or $500 smart watch next to their diamond or gold ring on their manicured finger while they sit in their luxury car or corner office chair to be grateful for something. Seriously. Black Friday is an embarrassment to the human race. Every year, we watch video of people waiting in line for hours only to trample and maim each other for the best deal…hours after we supposedly spend the day in gratitude for what we already have. I think of the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime and wonder, how did we get here?

While gratitude produces positive chemicals in the brain, stress or worry produce negative ones. The chemicals circulating in our brain at any time determine our current mood, thoughts, and behaviors. This is the mindless part that is so hard to deal with. And there is no “overcoming” this kind of stuff, if you were waiting for that instruction. That word should be removed from the dictionary! We don’t overcome fear or trauma or abuse or grief or circumstances. We can learn to prepare for them, recover from them, and create a place for them in our minds that isn’t front and center, allowing other emotions and behaviors to have some power. Happy endings are for fiction (and wherever else your mind might have wandered here). Reconciling with a loved one or family member is a process and once you get to a place of healing or forgiveness, there is still much work to do in the relationship to keep it from going backwards.

Feeling like I should apologize for the tone of this piece, I examine my own need to feel something better. Most of the people I know or am close with experience stress and difficulty during this time of year. Mette and I are both geographically away from most family and that brings longing and grief right now. So, what do we do to feel better? We talk about it. I ask my patients to talk about it. The need to process and experience it is unavoidable, as annoying as it is. Don’t get stuck there, but don’t ignore it because it will only back up and then be more difficult to deal with. Oscillate. Feel yucky if you feel yucky, but then find something to feel good about and move your energy around. Gratitude is hard to avoid when you have people and animals you love around you, so I spend time with my horses and they always make me feel better. I also tend to stay off social media more than usual this time of year. Unfortunately, and unknowingly, it causes deep, chemical reactions in us, we don’t really notice it because of the addictive quality. Funny how it makes me feel badly but I have to work hard to resist the click and scroll habit.

And lastly, the grieving part. This was my second Thanksgiving without my mom, Kyp. It was her favorite holiday, making the day sad and a bit lonely. Cooking is NOT my thing, ever. I don’t enjoy it or find it relaxing or fulfilling like people who like to cook describe it. In a family of cooks and best-selling cookbook authors, I find it irritating and time-consuming, go figure. We went to my dad and stepmom’s house for dinner, dividing the cooking duties between us all. I made my mom’s candied yams (my childhood favorite) and stuffing for the first time purely out of need. I thought a lot about my mom and the joy it brought her to cook like that. My sister, Justine, and my niece, Hayley channel Kyp’s recipe’s perfectly—unlike my first attempt. But it didn’t matter that they didn’t look or taste as great, it was a part of me enjoying a part of her and them. My dad laughed and reminisced about the old days and the huge table Kyp prepared, filled with family and more family. We talked on speakerphone with Justine, who now hosts the table filled with family and more family. There was love and longing, gratitude and the things we missed. It was bittersweet, with both thanks and grieving, just like most days.