The Christmas Ambush: When Grief Hijacks You

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It was Christmas again. Three Christmases since the baby died. The dread was less intense this year. I even forgot the anniversary of the second trimester check-up—the date passed by with no sad journal entry, no tears. I was actually enjoying the holiday season.

Normally, I love Christmas as much as Buddy the Elf—singing carols in the shower, decorating the house, baking cookies for neighbors. And don’t get me started on the Christmas movies. I know, I don’t get it either. But for the past few years, all that joy had been overtaken by pain, despair, hopelessness, and loss. The festivities of the season were landmines—everything reminded me of three years ago when I was sitting with the pain of knowing I was pregnant with a baby I knew wouldn’t live.

As a sign of grace, this year felt lighter. I was singing, I was baking, I decorated anything that would stand still. Part of my evening ritual involved walking the dog after dusk so I could enjoy the Christmas lights and peek into houses before the curtains were drawn to see the twinkling trees—silvertip, noble, douglas-fir.

On one such evening, my husband, Greg, had agreed to watch a Christmas movie with me (I negotiated four before Christmas), so when the dog and I took off on our cold Christmas light expedition, I was in a particularly good mood. Our neighborhood was full of spirit—the blow-up Santa in a hot air balloon, the white wicker reindeer who move their heads slowly up and down, and the new trend of spot lights that project snowflakes. I felt light and happy.

As I was walking past one house, a gorgeous front picture window caught my attention. It had an unusual wooden Christmas tree in the middle of the frame. Jutting out from the center trunk were curved shelves, which held small figurines. These shelves wrapped in circles around the center post increasing in diameter from top to bottom in a cone shape, mimicking the silhouette of a tree. I slowed my pace to enjoy looking at it.

And then I saw them. A man on the couch reading a book to the child on his lap. A father and son. A family. And that was it. A hard pit of sadness and despair dropped to the center of my stomach, crushing my holiday spirit, my cheer. I was enveloped by a familiar gray fog. Tears filled my eyes and silently rolled down my face as I detoured to the shortest route home.

I’ve come to call this kind of occurrence "The Ambush."

The Ambush usually starts with an "It." “It” is a person, a scene, a song, or a smell. Anything that triggers a memory. Sometimes those memories feel like flashbacks, re-lived more than remembered. And sometimes it’s just a general sense of sadness—dull and empty. Whatever the result, it can come out of nowhere and hijack the moment, leaving you feeling helpless.

For the first year and a half year after the death of the baby, I was constantly on the lookout for my most-feared ambush: pregnant women. My body was on guard, bracing for the moment I would turn the corner and run into a soon-to-be mom and her globe-like belly. Ambushes come in many forms and can happen anywhere: the grocery store, the doctor’s office, while you’re having tea with a friend. Part of their power is in their unexpectedness—over time we start to let our guard down, like I did on my Christmas walk.

While it is impossible to predict what’s around every corner and protect ourselves from every potential trigger, there are a few practical ways to support ourselves as we move through these tricky times.

Ambushes Happen

First, know that ambushes happen. If your husband died a year ago and you hear a song in the elevator that reminds you of your wedding day, and you can’t make it to the meeting because you’re crying in a bathroom stall, it’s ok. You didn’t do anything wrong and you aren’t weak. You shouldn’t "be over it by now." These memories and waves of emotion are natural and normal. They will happen.

Practice: Yoga for Grief with Michelle Marlahan

Emotional Safe Place

When you do get ambushed, go to the emotional safe place. Where do you feel safe, held, understood? Would it help to spend the afternoon under the covers? Can you call a friend or get on a forum so someone can say, "Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Of course you got triggered. That sounds so hard." Would writing about it or taking a walk give you some space? Only you will know where that emotional safe place is in the moment. Give yourself permission to go there.

Simple, Basic Self-Care

Resource yourself with simple, basic self-care. Grief is exhausting, dehydrating, and can lower your immunity. Taking care of your body and your basic needs makes navigating the emotional terrain somewhat less intense. It won’t necessarily be easy, but we can keep it from being compounded. Drink some water, eat nourishing food, try a gentle yoga practice , and make a conscious intention to rest.

Feel Your Feelings

Let yourself feel your feelings. Our emotions are intelligent and valid. When we allow ourselves to experience the feelings that arise, they can change and move through more naturally. If we ignore, push down or shame those emotions, we can get stuck, and like a clogged hose, pressure builds and things start to back up. Our emotions are messengers, pointing to areas where we can love and care for ourselves more fully. They also show us what what we value. When we experience the loss of something or someone that’s important to us, it’s natural to have feelings around it. Give yourself and the people that matter to you the honesty of your emotions.

Ambushes will happen and they can derail an entire day. You can find yourself smack-dab in the middle of a memory with feelings of grief as intense as in the early days of loss.

My Christmas Ambush reminded me that there is no timeline for grief. Instead it rises and falls like waves on the ocean. Rather than thinking I "should" be over it and just powering through the evening as planned, I walked my tender heart home and told Greg what happened. After some tears, quiet time, and a long hug, I felt seen and my feelings had the space to move and change. It didn’t mean I was over it, or there wouldn’t be another ambush someday. But it was a healing for that night and a way to honor both my grief and the baby I love and lost.

SOS Practice: Butterfly Hug

About the Author

Michelle Marlahan

Michelle is a yoga teacher based in Sacramento. You can practice with her on Yoga Anytime in Yoga for Grief.


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