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How to process grief during the holidays, according to poet Tracy K. Smith

Hokyoung Kim for NPR

Editor's note: This story was originally published in December 2020.

When I was a kid, I watched the winter holidays shift for my family after my mother died. We no longer gathered with her family for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Instead, these holidays contracted, and it was just my sisters, my dad and me, each of us uncertain how to proceed as a unit.

Should we still set up a Christmas tree? Would we put up our mother's ornaments or her stocking? It took my family years for the holidays to feel celebratory and for us to figure out the best way to honor her — something we're constantly reassessing as our lives change and our families grow.

And this year, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, I lost an uncle, and not being able to gather with family to mourn him because of COVID-19 restrictions has given me new questions about how to meaningfully honor his life without the usual traditions to direct my grief.

As the poet Tracy K. Smith reminded me in an interview recently: "We all have our own language for what we've lived and what loss feels like."

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Smith, a former U.S. poet laureate, frequently addresses themes of loss and memory in her work. Her collection of poetry Life on Mars won a Pulitzer Prize, and her memoir Ordinary Light is, in part, a recollection of her mother's life and death.

I spoke with her for NPR's Life Kit. Highlights from our conversation are below.

On how she's processing grief during the pandemic

I feel like I've been wearing it, carrying it more, you know, closer to the surface than usual for the last many months.

And it's done interesting things — because on one hand, I feel a deep wish to connect to my parents who are both gone, because I would love to know what they could tell me about having lived through ... their history. They both grew up in the Jim Crow-era South. They came of age during the civil rights movement. And that history — which had always felt far away when I was growing up — feels like it's upon us again now. And so I long for their voices.

But I also feel that time feels porous. It feels like maybe it never goes away. Maybe, you know, this movement that we belong to isn't new. It's part of something that's been going on for more than even just ... a few generations. Maybe this is something ... that runs through the ages in a way. And somehow, I'm trying to dig into that sense of connection wherever I can find or imagine it to be.

On how she's thinking about grief during the holidays in 2020

I'm thinking about how to make space for that longing. And I feel like that's long been a part of holidays for me. But of course, it's exacerbated now. And one way that I've always kind of dealt with it is, "Let's make space for the traditions that our parents fostered. Let's make space for the foods that we ate together."

I started early with the cooking up food that conjures a sense of my parents. My dad's birthday was Halloween, and so we baked a birthday cake — one of his favorite cakes, [an orange slice cake]. And I knew this cake from way back when, but I haven't tasted it for probably like 30 years, and I didn't even quite remember what it would taste like. And so that first bite was just this amazing, beautiful, sad swirling of presence.

We all have our own language for what we've lived and what loss feels like. Tracy K. Smith

On how she connects with family members whose grief might look different

I have a wish-making practice, a ritual that started with dear friends that now my husband and now my daughter participates in. But at the end of the year, we make lists and we say, "OK, these are the things I'm grateful for." And you are, you know, generous in naming the things that you recognize that you've received over time and that have been meaningful to you.

And then you think about the things that you're ready to receive: What are your wishes for the coming year? What do you hope to gain? And how do you hope to change? And then the other thing that I think is really lovely is, you don't stop there. You also make wishes for the people that you love: You know, what do you want these other folks in your life to gather and to receive in the coming year?

I feel like that's a meaningful way of thinking about the past, the present and the future, which is a big part of what the holidays are for.

On our different vocabularies for loss

We all have our own language for what we've lived and what loss feels like. Sharing that, you know, an occasion like a funeral, you think, "Oh, I've got to say something big, something wise." But the small things are maybe even more necessary to pass along — you know, the tiny things that make you realize that what you shared was this huge ongoing thing, that wasn't just big moments.

It really is important to remember, too, that we all have different vocabularies for feeling in general. But grief is one of those really specific points of feeling. And so sometimes it's not always possible to say, "Let's come at this from my perspective, my vocabulary. Tell me what you think. Tell me what you understand now." That doesn't always console. That doesn't always foster anything but anxiety.

Sometimes just meeting someone where they are is important and understanding that everything that we're hearing — everything that we're saying to one another, everything that I'm receiving from you — is coming through this huge lens of loss or fear or regret, whatever the circumstances are. And so, at this moment, this is your language for those things. And sometimes the way that happens with family is silence — and sometimes I think that's OK.

On the role of self-care

I've been making space to just say, "I hurt, I need to sit down, I need to lie down," and do what it takes to gather the energy to do what's needed or expected of me. I don't always feel that way, but ... we talk about self-care. And self-care in large part is about ministering to the reality of our own pain and exhaustion and giving ourselves what we need to fuel up.

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