By Tyler Hale
The holiday season is upon us, with merry songs filling the air, the excitement of young children waiting for Christmas Day and the promise of the New Year just around the corner.
While the Christmas holiday is often considered the happiest time of the year, with its connection to gifts, feasts and religious celebrations. It can be an emotional and stressful time for some due to the memories and pressures the holidays bring.
Because the holidays are often a time for families to be together, the absence of a family member due to death can be a painful reminder of that loss. The loss of a loved one can feel heightened during this time, and the familiar traditions that were shared with that loved one can feel hollow in their absence.
As a grief recovery specialist, Cindi Blackwood is all too familiar with the challenges of the holiday season. Since 2016, she has counseled others on how to deal with their grief and navigate the emotional highs and lows stemming from loss, particularly in stressful times like the holidays. Grief, she says, is a natural, healthy response to losing a loved one, and it is something that should not be stigmatized or dismissed.
“As we know, when we lose someone to death, what follows is grief because grief is the natural reaction to the loss of any kind,” she says. “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.”
Blackwood is no stranger to grief herself. In fact, she was called to become a grief recovery specialist after a tragedy in her family. “This is not something that I grew up wanting to do or thought that I would ever do, but came into because of a tragedy that happened in our family,” she says.
That tragedy happened when her son, Alex, died as a result of suicide, caused by undiagnosed depression. The entire Blackwood family – Cindi, husband Steven and daughter Ariel – were clearly devastated by the loss of Alex.
“I made sure [the tree] was up and made sure everything was like it had been before because I had Christmas at my house. I wanted things to carry on, and I wanted people to think that I was okay,” she says.
However, she struggled in the following years with her grief. For at least two years, the Blackwood family didn’t have any Christmas decorations at all. Cindi says stockings were especially hard for her because she could not figure out what to do with them since there was nothing to put in Alex’s stocking.
In the ensuing years, the Blackwood family coped with Alex’s death in different ways. While Cindi enjoyed having pictures of the family up, Steven didn’t. She tried to be strong for her family and only cried when she was alone in her private closet. Later, Cindi found this had a harmful effect on her family. Her daughter told her that she wasn’t crying about Alex because she thought Cindi wasn’t crying.
“That ended up being something that hurt her, not intentionally, but because I would not allow [myself to cry],” Cindi says. “And even my kids, when they’re younger, I just wouldn’t show emotion hardly in front of them. I would always do that in my closet.”
After years of struggling through the holidays, Cindi determined to have a “new normal” decided to approach Christmas differently. Instead of relying on old traditions, she and her family began to create new traditions that honored Alex’s memory. She started by selling her old formal Christmas tree, and she and Ariel went to Target and bought a brand-new tree and decorated it with bright colors.
She contacted people who knew Alex and asked them to write a light-hearted story or memory they remembered about him. When she received them, she printed them and cut them out, folded them and put them into his stocking. Once again, it seemed to Cindi that the stockings had a use again, this time as a holder for people’s memories of Alex.
“So the stocking now had something in it,” she says. “And we always laugh because of the funny stories that people have told about things that Alex did. That was really helpful for us with the stockings, to be able to put the stories in there.”
Grief is not something that is dealt with immediately or can be swept under the rug and forgotten. Even when one comes to grips with a loss, grief can still affect them or flare up as a result of a trigger or memory. She encourages people to be considerate of those who have suffered losses and to be patient with those who are going through the grieving process. While it may seem that some people are wallowing in their grief, the process is unique to each person, she says.
“It’s been 10 years. This will be my 10th holiday season, and there are still times that it’s still really hard,” Blackwood says. “So, it’s not just about that first year. It’s about all the years after that. Keep that in mind because we all know people that are grieving, including ourselves.”
Managing grief is an ongoing process, one that does not have a definite end date. One way to get a handle on grief, according to Blackwood, is to find moments of recognizing that life is positive and enjoy those moments. Those moments can be fleeting, but the gradual accumulation of “life is good” moments will eventually add up.
“It doesn’t mean five minutes because in the beginning, five minutes can seem like an eternity,” she says. “When you start piecing those moments together, then they become minutes, and then they can become hours. But it starts with just life is a good moment.”