Healing Holiday Grief with Compassion

When I hear Andy Williams sing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” I cringe. I replace “wonderful” and sing to myself, “It’s the most terrible time of the year.”

Is anyone with me?

For me and many others, the holidays are not full of joy. They are a stark reminder of those we have lost. I used to love the holiday season, especially when I was married. My married name was Sara Holly, and, man, I enjoyed playing that up. Happy Holly-days, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Deck the Halls with Sara Holly (the possibilities are endless).

Three years into my marriage, tragedy struck. In August of 2004, my father was out for his morning jog and was killed by a sleepy driver.

Christmas has never felt the same to me.

My jolly dad genuinely loved Christmas, and I have vivid memories of him during December evenings. Manhattan in hand, he admired our beautifully lit tree while he played Andy Williams and “Holiday Sing Along with Mitch” on the record player. Sometimes he even sang along despite his glaring lack of musical talent.

I was a complete mess that entire first year without him, and the first Christmas felt like torture.

I didn’t think Christmas could get worse, and then a few short years later I found myself going through a devastating divorce. When my daughter was just a year old, I kept up the front of holiday happiness as I watched my marriage unravel. No one else knew our marriage was failing, so I dug deep to bake cookies, to buy presents and to “say cheese” for family photos. One Christmas later, I was separated from my husband and the following year I was divorced.

For several years, I felt the void of losing two important men in my life. Along with that, I grieved the loss of my ex-husband’s family. Each year I hear from my enthusiastic daughter about the Holly holiday traditions that no longer include me, from picking out a Christmas tree at the family farm in North Carolina to watching “Christmas Vacation” on Christmas Eve with a rambunctious crew.

The holidays were not joyful, not peaceful, and certainly not merry.

The holidays meant suffering.

My Compassion Cultivation Training teachers taught me that suffering happens when you want something you can’t have or get something you don’t want. I certainly never wanted to split time with my daughter on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact, I had always imagined a home full of people on Christmas instead of just me, Hannah, and our dog Scout. I did not want this.

Why am I sharing this? Because the holiday blues strike many of us, and I’m hoping that by sharing my own experience I can help others know they are not alone.

For anyone like me, this should be a season of self-compassion. We should acknowledge that we’re suffering, we should recognize we’re not alone, and we should comfort ourselves. We should also reach out to our friends and loved ones who can support us during this time.

For those who are lucky enough to truly enjoy this time of year, I hope you will take time to consider that others may be struggling and might need your help.

What’s the best way to help others? Here’s a story written by Omid Safi from OnBeing.org that offers sage advice:
There is a story told and retold in the Middle East about how to help someone who’s drowning.

The story goes that a man had fallen into a river. He was not much of a swimmer and was in real danger of drowning. A crowd of concerned people wanted to rescue him. They were standing at the edge of the water, each of them urgently shouting out to him:

“Give me your hand, give me your hand!”

The man was battling the waves and ignored their urgent plea. He kept going under and was clearly struggling to take another breath.

A saintly man walked up to the scene. He too cared about the drowning man. But his approach was different. Calmly he walked up to the water, waded in up to his knees, glanced lovingly at the drowning man, and said:

“Take my hand.”

Much to everyone’s surprise, the drowning man reached out and grabbed the saint’s hand. The two came out of the dangerous water. The drowning man sat up at the edge of the water, breathing heavily, looking relieved, exhausted, and grateful.

The crowd turned towards the saint and asked in complete puzzlement: “How were you able to reach him when he didn’t heed our plea?” The saint calmly said:

“You all asked him for something, his hand. I offered him something, my hand. A drowning man is in no position to give you anything.”

Let us remember not to ask anything of someone who is drowning.

I’m happy to report that after many years of sadness during the holidays, I’m feeling much better. My compassion and self-compassion practices have helped me tremendously, and I truly enjoy sharing San Diego’s unique holiday festivities with my daughter. (We have ice skating at the beach for heaven’s sake!) I’m grateful that I can be on the giving end of compassion for my friends who need help.

I wish you a holiday season full of compassion for yourself and others. It may not be the most wonderful time of the year, but we can make it less terrible if we care for each other.


  1. Linda Barrett on December 15, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Beautifully written, thank you.

    • Compassion It Team on December 16, 2017 at 4:30 am

      Thank you, Linda. That means a lot!

  2. linda esrick on December 15, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    This is beautiful thank you. I would love to post this. Anyway I can ?

  3. Heidi on December 15, 2017 at 10:49 pm

    Thank you for your kind “share”. This is a difficult time of year for many.

    • Compassion It Team on December 16, 2017 at 4:30 am

      Thanks so much, Heidi. Yes, it is… It’s a good time for compassion and self-compassion, that’s for sure.

  4. Nicole on December 17, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    This was beautifully written and really spoken to my heart. I️ feel like I️ am drowning right now, and missing my dad terribly. I️ too have lived through the same exact situation as you. It has been 18 years since my divorce and I️ still struggle with the holidays in the same way. Thank you for opening my eyes to how you and others feel during this holiday season. I️ feel like I️ am
    Not alone!!

    • Compassion It Team on December 17, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to write this, Nicole. I’m sorry that you’re also grieving…may you find comfort and peace in knowing you are not alone.

  5. Ann Marie on December 20, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you , Sara. I realize that I am also feeling grief over these holidays. I appreciate that there are others who understand. Feeling comfort in knowing that I’m not alone.

    • Compassion It Team on December 21, 2017 at 3:35 am

      You’re welcome, Ann Marie. I’m sorry that you, too, are feeling grief. We are all in this together!

  6. Tricia DePew on December 22, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    Sara, thank you for sharing your story. Of course, I knew your dad, and yes, he seemed like the dad who would love Christmas as you described. I didn’t realize your marriage unraveled as it did. I’m sorry for that. You are doing amazing things for so many people. I’m so very proud of you. You Schairer kids were all good writers. I see you are still at it. Love and Merry Christmas to you, Hannah, and Scout.
    Your old third grade teacher,
    Mrs. DePew (Miss Kwasigroh)

    • Compassion It Team on December 25, 2017 at 7:21 am

      Mrs. DePew,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to write that sweet note. It truly means a lot to me.

      Wishing you and your family a wonderful Christmas!


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