One of the best things about being a parent is hearing and seeing the new ways of looking at the world that children bring to your life.
An idle question about a play some friends did years ago while in high school led to a query about the five stages of grief (or death and dying) that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross articulated, and then we were off and running in a discussion on some of the ways those five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — can be used to explain much of our response to what happens in our world.
(Yes, we have some deep conversations in my family.)
This past Sunday was the first of Advent, the four weeks leading to Christmas, that Christians mark each year.
That it was also Dec. 1 was not lost on me. I couldn’t have forgotten if I tried: the papers, the radio, the television and the Internet are full of countdowns, all of them seemingly designed to induce panic about readiness.
I’m not comparing death and dying to the whirl of emotions of pre-holiday planning, but it did occur to me that Kubler-Ross had created a handy rubric that could be applied to the holiday season, and over the past two decades, I have seen quite a few people move through those steps.
Denial. Social media is full of commentary from people who are putting their fingers in their ears and going la-la-la as others chat cheerfully about holiday plans.
To be honest, when I was in my 20s, I really thought people who didn’t do anything for Christmas until the last minute was a myth, until one year I had to wait for a pickup on Christmas Eve and our meeting spot was the mall. I was bemused by the hordes out shopping, not for a deal, but for the adrenalin rush of finishing their list.
But as one friend is fond of saying, denial is not just a river in Egypt.
Anger. Last week it was American Thanksgiving, an event that ranks higher than Christmas in that country’s holiday schedule, but it, too, has its share of drama and angst, of sturm und drang.
Whether it is debating where to eat dinner, what to have for dinner, whose turn it is to take Grandma to church or getting wound up when someone steals your parking spot or takes the last must-have toy off the shelf, there’s a fair bit of anger and its companion, resentment, accompanying the holidays.
Sadly, based on what I have read and seen, quite a few people stay in this stage.
Bargaining. I think we’ve all been there and done that. I’ve known many parents who have moved heaven and earth to get something dearly prized by their child.
The deals which happen are amazing and would probably put Wall Street bigwigs to shame for their sheer elegance.
One year I had a flood that took out my basement. Contractors were few and far between and I found myself at the beginning of November looking at concrete and studs and wondering if I would actually have walls and a floor before Christmas.
Many were the bargains made so that by Dec. 20, the celebrating could begin in earnest.
Depression. Remember what I said about the drama that accompanies holidays?
You would never say it to look at the pictures on the blogs, the advertisements and the catalogues. The clash between the representation of reality and the lived experience is the source of most holiday depression, say those who work in the mental health field.
The expectations that are created are often unrealistic, and frequently unachievable.
For those who have experienced losses, Christmas and other big religious celebrations such as Hanukkah, for example, tend to remind people of what is missing instead of focusing on what still remains.
Acceptance. While Kubler-Ross argued that the stages were not sequential steps, and that people moved through them in various ways, it seems we almost always come to acceptance at the end, regardless of how we have walked those steps.
That year I had the flood? I decided I didn’t need to do half of what I had planned; I ditched some things and made up new ones to deal with my new reality.
When you take charge of your priorities, rather than them take charge of you, life is easier and more peaceful, in my experience.
Four of the five stages may be looming on the horizon, but it doesn't have to be. In our household, we look forward to 12 days of joy and keeping it really, really simple.
May the holidays be what you want them to be.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living
in St. John’s. Her column returns in two weeks.