Grief and holidays — a personal reflection

The joyful echoes of carols have faded, the last remnants of wrapping paper find their way to recycling bins, and the once-gleaming ornaments are carefully packed away for another year. Yes, the holiday season has bid us adieu, leaving behind the warmth of cherished moments and the faint scent of pine.

Personally, I'd like to ease myself back into the gentle hum of routine by reflecting on what happened during the holiday season — identifying whether there was anything I learned that I can bring to the new year. To do that, however, I must first unpack my complicated relationship with the holiday season, especially Christmas.

Oftentimes, since the beginning of the month, I'd experience a myriad of emotions. I could be thankful, excited, ecstatic, and full of holiday cheer and anticipation on one day, and, the next I was feeling down and out, while also experiencing the occasional wave of nostalgia, disappointment, worry, and anger.

On some days I felt several of these emotions simultaneously, hence I was easily overwhelmed.

Ever since I was young, I’d always spend Christmas with my family. It was sacred in a way that all of us knew it was our day together. Other plans, e.g. with friends and extended family, had to wait until Dec 26 onwards. The four of us — my parents, my older brother, and me — would go to church and have dinner, followed by a movie or a trip to the nearest shopping mall. We'd sit down, enjoy each other's company, and soak up the ambience. That was our ritual.

I was in charge of making the reservation for Christmas dinner and I remembered I always asked for a table of four. Most of the time we went to the same Chinese restaurant and some of the waiters even recognized us because of our frequent visits. They too remembered our special request for our food, courtesy of my parents: less oil, more vegetables.

This ritual was something I'd been looking forward to every year. I'd even have my own countdown to see how long I needed to wait before that magical time of the year was upon us again.

In hindsight, I should have known all good things must come to an end.

For me, the end was 2 years ago where everything changed, and not for the better.

I no longer made the countdown.

And, I stopped making a reservation for four for our Christmas dinner. 

Instead, I asked for a table of three

Even though they still gave us a table of four, the one empty chair was a glaring reminder that things wouldn't be the same like it used to: from the atmosphere to the overall experience of our dinner. Less boisterous laughter, more silence. Less cheerful, more gloomy. There were topics we refrained from bringing them up because it'd remind us of one family member who was no longer with us.


It is said that grief is a natural response to loss and oftentimes than not, we associate grieving with the death of a loved one. It made me wonder whether I can grieve someone who’s still alive but doesn’t want to be in my life anymore.

Grieving for someone who’s still alive is hard.

Grieving for a parent whom you grew up idolizing but who chose to walk out on your life and turned out to be okay with being disconnected from you is even harder.

It’s a foreign feeling — similar to heartbreak in its devastating effect, but the impact is more profound; one that altered my outlook on life, family, relationships, and Christmas ever since.

For a while, I didn’t know how to grapple with this sense of loss. My mom and brother are also still grieving in their own way. I talked to my mom most often about this and sometimes we grieved together. On the other hand, my brother was harder to reach because one of his coping mechanisms was putting up walls and boundaries. 


Last December was the second Christmas I spent with just the three of us. As I mentioned before, I experienced joy, sadness, excitement, nostalgia, disappointment, envy, and anger — among other things.  

It was not easy balancing all of these emotions so much so that I missed the simplicity (and naivety) of being a child who was eagerly looking forward to his ritual — which includes unwrapping his Christmas presents — and was unbothered by anything else. 

But, part of growing up means seeing the world (or the reality) as it is, not as I wish it to be. While this sounds good in theory, the practice is an entirely different story. I wasn’t sure where to start and how to accept the hard truth as my family was upended by this change. 


I found the answer rather serendipitously. After months of searching for answers — some were helpful, others less so — I remembered I was sitting in the back of the room hearing the facilitator (i.e. Mulyadi) talk about emotions in one of our System Work courses

I had known about the topics for quite some time, but, then there was one question from the participant that made me sit up and it felt like I was seeing the topic for the first time. Suddenly, a lightbulb went on in my head. 

Documentation from one of our System Work courses for public

To address the question, Mul delved deeper into the concept of emotions, defining them as our reactions to external stimuli. Within this process, he highlighted distinct layers worth exploring. Firstly, there's the tangible aspect: something we witness, perceive, or hear. Subsequently, we attach meaning to it, influenced by our personal experiences, values, and expectations. Emotion then emerges as a response.

What caught my attention was the revelation that our brains often operate so swiftly that we tend to bypass the second step — the meaning-making phase — and swiftly transition to experiencing emotions. This resonated with me because it reflected my own experiences.

In my particular scenario, the observable fact was the transformation of my family into a trio, resulting from a parent's departure. During Christmas, a myriad of emotions surfaced, including sorrow, disappointment, envy, and gratitude. Unconsciously, I neglected the crucial step of assigning meaning to these events. I didn't pause to reflect on the interpretations I attributed to these circumstances.

With this newfound awareness, I recognized that my emotions are intricately linked to the meaning-making process, shaped by my reflective, subjective judgment. For instance:

  1. Considering the observable fact of my family becoming a trio, I might assess myself as a failing son, feeling sorrow and despondency.
  2. Alternatively, a different assessment, such as viewing the situation as unfair compared to others who celebrate the holidays with their complete families, could evoke feelings of envy.
  3. Taking a positive perspective, I can alter my assessment yet again. Despite the unchangeable observable fact, I may choose to perceive it as beyond my control, recognizing the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with my mother and brother, resulting in feelings of gratitude.

In essence, I concluded that, while the observable fact might be beyond my control, the assessment is entirely within my grasp. I have the power to determine the meaning I assign to these events. This newfound awareness provides me with valuable insights into understanding and managing my emotions, for which I am sincerely grateful.

I’m writing and sharing this with you for two reasons. 

One, for those of you who attended our System Work course before, I'd like to thank you. Your presence, questions, and participation allowed me to also learn and re-learn some of the topics and then apply them in my life. I'd go as far as to say the learnings change my life, for the better.

Secondly, I firmly believe that the System Work course has the potential to bring profound benefits to a wide audience, particularly those grappling with pain and trauma. The curriculum of System Work is a product of the collective efforts of numerous individuals who had invested countless hours in understanding the intricacies of the human system. Just as I have personally benefitted from their work, it is my aspiration to serve as a conduit: sharing their work with a wider audience so that others can get something out of it like I did.

The learning from this course can help you unpack the intricacies of our relationship with one another — exploring aspects such as coping mechanisms, emotions, and human dynamics. In doing so, it provides us with the opportunity to comprehend the essence of being human, embracing both our strengths and weaknesses.

If you're interested to learn more about this, please click here or scan the QR code below.

Thank you for reading.


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