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22 December 2019 00:34

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When you think you're in the clear, even just momentarily, it pulls you down. I mean that literally. I can't count how many times I've fallen to my knees steadying myself against the wall with my hands, hoping I don't completely crumble. And during the holidays, I find myself crippled with grief in moments I didn't expect — even though I should have. It happens every year.

Alanna Smith: Grief is an odd thing during the holiday season

I hung an ornament on our family Christmas tree earlier this month only to be overcome with emotions. It's my favourite ornament, a quirky, sparkly pelican. It reminds me of my dad, whom I lost 11 years ago just shy of my 14th birthday. We used to play a game where the first person to spot a pelican near the beach would win a dollar. A few days later I'm in the office. My colleague just lost her family member. I offer with the utmost sympathy the few words I can find as I choke back my own bubbling emotions: "I'm sorry for your loss." I can't help but feel sad knowing she might feel the same way I do this holiday season. I leave for the bathroom down the hall only to cry in a quiet stall, hoping no one walks in. That weekend I'm travelling to Edmonton for my brother's wedding. In my purse is a photo of my dad. I wish he were here so that he could see how happy my brother is. I barely make it outside city limits before I have to pull over. I can't see the road as hot tears fall down my cheeks. Grief is an odd thing. It comes without warning. And during the holidays it's almost as if the sadness I've bottled up during the year comes pouring out. It doesn't help that, at the same time, I feel an immense pressure to be happy. To be happy for my friends, for my family, to enjoy the shimmering lights and warmth of the season. But, I just feel cold. It's that pressure to feign a smile for loved ones that makes it worse and, in the moments where grief takes over, it's easy to feel alone. Turns out it's a feeling shared by many during the festive season. Churches across the city have been hosting Blue Christmas services, or the like, to recognize that the usually joyous holiday can also be filled with difficult feelings around painful life events like death. "We create a safe space where people are essentially given permission to not be happy and for that to be OK," says Rev. Tracy Robertson of St. Thomas United Church in Calgary's northwest. "It's almost like people yearn for permission to say, 'I'm not OK.'" Her church's service, held last week, was a space for reflection and allowed community members to feel and be as they were, whether that meant praying, crying or sitting quietly while music played. It was for people to know they aren't alone. As the hour-long gathering took place, they lit four Advent candles making the room brighter with each dancing flame. It was symbolic. "There is light," says Robertson. "Light comes to the darkness and darkness won't be forever." In a pamphlet given to attendees, the church offered five tips to handle holiday grief. Here it goes: Allow yourself to feel sad. Know that it's OK to enjoy yourself — you aren't betraying the memory of a lost loved one. Look after yourself. Reach out. And avoid holding in negative feelings. Punch a pillow, bake cookies, write in a journal, go for a run — whatever helps. If everyone in that room had the courage to say they aren't OK, then I can say it too. I'm not OK. Alanna Smith is a reporter for Postmedia in Calgary. [email protected] Twitter: @alanna_smithh