Summer is here. It is hard to believe that June is over and regardless of cooler temperatures, Fourth of July has arrived.
I grew up loving the Fourth of July and in truth, it was one of my favorite times of year. Our family would go camping in Northern Wisconsin and eventually we went to a family cabin every year. The tradition continued with my own kids. Lazy summer days, the heat of July, boating, bonfires, s’mores and magical firework displays would fill our holiday week. There were so many wonderful memories.
And – then there were bad memories.
Unfortunately, our family experienced a huge loss on July 3rd and while it was many years ago, the memories of that tragic holiday weekend never completely go away. It is as if a dark cloud finds us and hangs above our heads every year and it does not matter how much time has passed.
Nothing could have prepared any of us for the horrific boating accident over the Fourth of July weekend in 1999. Five young men lost their lives including my first husband and the father of my two young daughters. Lives were turned upside down and lives were forever changed on that fateful hot July night.
Granted – we tried to create some sense of normalcy for the kids that weekend hoping to somehow numb the pain. I remember walking into a fireworks store in a fog and buying a few fireworks and sparklers. That seems so silly now. Looking back, there was no normal and no one cared about the fireworks. We were all left with mere fragments of the holiday we once knew and loved and the weight of our grief left us feeling vulnerable and raw.
So instead of watching fireworks we watched the news hoping that Scott’s body would be recovered. And – it was – in the early evening hours on the Fourth of July.
For us, the Fourth of July would never be the same.
I came to hate the Fourth of July and the anticipation of it left me feeling sad, distracted, uneasy and upset every year for a very long time. Like most holidays, there were reminders everywhere and any sense of happiness during the holiday was gone. Fireworks left me feeling sick to my stomach and being anywhere near boats terrified me. I felt isolated, lonely and misunderstood. My heart ached constantly for my girls. Stress would take over, emotions would run high and I had a difficult time just relaxing yet alone enjoying the Fourth of July.
At times, my grief was overwhelming and yet it had nowhere to go. I didn’t know what to do with it and so I did little to nothing at all. One of my “new” traditions became staying up into the early morning of July 3rd until the approximate time of the accident had passed. That somehow brought me comfort. I’m not sure why.
Twenty years have now passed and there are times when it is hard to believe it has been that long. But – like any loss there are triggers that can bring any one of us back to the accident and it feels like yesterday. The pain can surface without warning and sadly, it is easy to remember every detail of that particular holiday weekend so many years ago.
Fireworks, American flags, boats, parades, potato salad or the colors of red, white and blue seem to be everywhere and it is hard to avoid the triggers regardless of how hard we might try. Certain songs, July heat, blue jean shorts or dirty bare feet splashing in the water can draw in waves of emotion that are difficult to explain but hard to ignore.
I’m writing about this because it HAS been twenty years. The Fourth of July, like any holiday connected to a loss, will never be the same. But – I am here to tell you that life does go on and you can heal your heart and move beyond the grief and pain. Yes – we still feel the sting of grief each and every year but over time our hearts have healed. We have learned to manage our grief and while different, we have learned to have fun on the Fourth of July one step at a time.
Holidays can be tricky because there are specific reminders that are impossible to avoid. It doesn’t matter if it is Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween or the Fourth of July. The holidays will be hard. However – much like any loss and the grief that comes with it you can heal, better navigate your grief and you can find your way back to a life filled with joy. Even during the holidays.
Here are a few things to remember if you are struggling with grief around a holiday or any important day-
Give yourself permission to grieve. Society sends us the message that we are supposed to be joyful and that the holidays are a time for celebration and connecting with people we love. But, in reality the holidays can leave a person feeling worse than ever. Nothing seems to take away the pain or the emptiness in our hearts. People feel pressured to act “fine” and to celebrate the holiday with a smile. However, those grieving struggle to just get by. Nothing seems to take away the empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs and the ache in our hearts. Don’t stuff it or ignore it or hide it. Avoiding it does not help and it will stand in the way of your heart healing. Don’t run from your grief but instead face it and go through it. There is life on the other side.
There is no expiration date on grief and there are no timelines when it comes to grieving. It doesn’t matter if it has been 6 months or 20 years. Grief can show up at any time and without warning. Grief will always be a part of you but it doesn’t have to control you. There will always be triggers that can bring your grief to the surface regardless of how long it has been. Holidays tend to leave reminders everywhere making it impossible to completely escape the past and the loss you and your family endured. Remember – you need to honor your feelings and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Talk about it. People that are grieving need to talk about their loss and their loved ones yet society is uncomfortable with grief. The result? People will hide their grief and pretend like they are fine. This leads to isolation and loneliness. If you are grieving and regardless of how long it has been, find the courage to talk about it. Share your feelings with someone you trust. Tell stories about your loved one. It is OKAY. The Grief Recovery Method defines grief as “Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.” It is normal to grieve. Don’t run away from it or hide it. It is impossible for others to know how you are feeling unless you have the courage to share. I can promise you that there are people who care and want to listen.
Create new traditions. Grief is personal and it is unique to each and every individual. Old traditions can be difficult to maintain and for some, the memories tied to those traditions may be too painful. With that being said, the traditions of the past may also bring comfort. For others, it may help to create new traditions in and around the holidays. Everyone is different and it is important to find a path that works best for you.
Be kind to yourself. Loss is hard and the grief that can show up during the holidays can be exhausting. Make sure that you are taking care of yourself. Do things that you love during the holidays. Take a hot bath. Go for a walk. Take a yoga class. Paint or write. Get a massage. Enjoy a glass of wine with a friend. Go to a movie. Read a good book. Plan a weekend getaway. Surround yourself with people that you trust and those that are empathetic to your pain. Get plenty of rest, hydrate and eat well. Cry if you need to. Engage in activities that are relaxing OR do nothing at all. Ask for help if you need it. Self-care is important when you are trying to navigate the waters of grief.
Create boundaries and just say NO. Society does not do well with loss and grief. People often do not know what to say therefore they say nothing at all. Or – they say things that simply can make a person feel worse. Those that are grieving feel pressured to play the part during the holidays and to try to create some sense of normalcy to lessen the discomfort others might feel. For years, I felt like I had to hide my grief during the 4th of July. I felt bad that I felt sad and down when others were celebrating and just wanting to have a good time. I felt like no one understood why I was still grieving years later and so I would hide my pain and act like everything was fine.
Remember – there is no expiration date to grief and the celebrations surrounding the holidays can stir your grief up. And yes even after months or years have gone by. If there are things that are too painful or things that you no longer want to do – just say no. It is okay. Set boundaries. I was incredibly afraid of being on a boat after the accident and quite honestly, I still feel fear and anxiety when I am on a boat especially on the 4th of July. Boating is a part of our lives and I do boat with my family, but I do have boundaries and I have learned that it is okay to say no or to express my fears. Recognize your triggers and your limitations. It is important for your healing and your well-being.
It is okay to enjoy the holidays. There was a time when I felt guilty if I felt happy during the Fourth of July. I didn’t feel like it was okay to laugh or have a good time. How could I enjoy the Fourth of July when it was connected to such a tragic event and people died? It was a struggle to reconcile those feelings and to manage the guilt. For years, nothing felt normal and in truth, I still feel the pull of grief even after 20 years. But – my daughters and I have learned that it is okay to enjoy the Fourth of July. Laughter is good.
Experiencing a loss during the holidays is difficult and most likely, that particular holiday will never be the same. While things will change and will be different, it is okay to have fun and you can find your way back to joy. You may face a variety of emotions during the holidays and it is critical that you allow yourself to feel all of them including happiness, sadness, guilt, fear, joy and pain. Every feeling matters. Listen to your body and pay attention to your heart.
Grief is messy and complicated. Regardless of the loss or the time of year, grief is complex and walking the journey of grief is tough. Cut yourself some slack and know that you are not alone. Yes it is messy but it is also something we will all face. Have faith that you will get through it one step at a time and believe that you are stronger than you realize. There is hope and there is help and I have learned that even when things seem darkest there is always something to be grateful for.
Writing a post about something that happened so long ago left me feeling a bit uneasy and quite frankly, I hesitated writing about it because it has been twenty years. But – as yet another Fourth of July approached – I felt compelled to write about a topic that I think is relevant to so many people and in part because grief still shows up around the holidays regardless of how much time has passed.
Grief is hard and holidays are hard. The amount of time does not matter. I’m writing because I know that hearts can heal and that there is hope and joy beyond the walls of grief. I have learned to find joy again during a holiday that I had once come to hate. There is no longer hate but the acceptance that while the Fourth of July will never be the same for our family, there is still love, gratitude and so much joy. I have made peace with it. My hope is that you too will find your way to a place of peace, healing and joy even in the midst of the holidays and the grief that has become a part of who you are.
Be well, be safe and have a great Fourth of July.
With love and in peace-