Women share a meal at a recent gathering of the Dinner Party, a community of young adults who have experienced significant loss.
Women share a meal at a recent gathering of the Dinner Party, a community of young adults who have experienced significant loss. (Katherine Frey)

As we enter into the season of gratitude, gifts, and lights, many of us who now live with only the memories of our loved ones often struggle to make it joyfully through this time of year. Amid the holiday parties, movies, music, travel and last-minute gift buying, it can be hard to reveal and share our sadness and/or grief during what some consider the most wonderful time of the year. Yet I urge you to share. Call a friend.

Recently, one of my friends whose parents died a few years apart during the holidays called me to share good news, however her joy was mingled with the pain and tears resulting from her parents not being able to partake in her accomplishments. She is frustrated. She is angry. She is grieving in a cycle that appears to be slowly spiraling upward toward healing thanks to the help of a counselor, her spirituality and her family and friends. When she wanted to share, she called me and I listened. I celebrated her news. I grieved upward with her, but her call lingered with me because I, too, lost my mother — more than 40 years ago. I know firsthand of the recycled longing that can arise for those we have lost during times of celebration.


In an article in Nursing Magazine in 1999, entitled “How to Handle Grief with Wisdom, the researchers wrote: “We (those watching the bereaved) expect them to feel better after 6 months and be ‘over it’ a year after their loss — and if they aren’t, we may decide they’re not handling their loss well. But grief doesn’t respect work schedules, life’s demands, or timetables. Although public mourning gradually ends, grieving can last indefinitely.”

And while we are familiar with Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief — namely, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — the article describes the grief process as a journey of reeling, feeling, dealing and healing. Its authors believe that, “Healing doesn’t mean forgetting or even necessarily accepting the loss. Instead, the loss becomes a part of them, and the acute anguish softens.”

While there are myriad ways to share our anguish resulting from grief — such as texting, emailing, Skyping, FaceTiming, Zooming, Facebook and Instagram posting — there is often something deeply lost in the digital translation: namely a deep connection. Many communication scholars agree that it can be difficult to accurately interpret the intended tone of a digital message despite the proliferation of emojis. I am personally of the view that, in MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s words (borrowing from Mark Twain), the death of conversation has been greatly exaggerated in this digital age. I know that not only is conversation alive, it is profoundly needed, especially when someone is grieving during a holiday season that can be more about dazzle rather than depth and gifts rather than gratitude.

As a communication professor, I know that face-to-face communication (without the use of monitors) provides the opportunity for us to better understand the meanings being shared by the individuals involved. In this context both our verbal and nonverbal communication cues can be clearly read. We can also immediately ask for clarification when words and/or gestures are confusing. And if face-to-face communication is not possible, a phone call provides the next best option. To hear the tone of a family member or friend’s voice provides information as well as a soothing comfort that a text, email or post cannot provide.

Our technology is not yet a substantive substitute for the voice connection that many of us need at this time of year when the lights can appear dim and the cheer hollow. Hence, given the abundance of phones, this could be the golden age of conversation. Gone are the days of long-distance and roaming charges to call from state to state. And if you are calling internationally, there are apps for that. Be an early adopter, and in this season of gratitude, gifts, and lights, call, connect with and love a family member or friend who may need to hear your voice during this season of good cheer. I know I will. Peace.

Heather E. Harris (hharris@stevenson.edu) is a professor of communication at Stevenson University.