Why ‘Happy New Year’ may not be possible for all

JANUARY 22, 2023 8:00 AM

We’re moving quickly into another new year. The older I get the faster time passes. It is customary to wish folks a “happy new year.” Yet for some folks, happiness is not something they wish to hear about — at least not right now. It may not be about not wanting to be happy but rather that they are feeling anything but happy, new year or not.

Who doesn’t want happiness? Maybe someone who lost their job or their home? Maybe someone who was diagnosed with a serious illness? Maybe someone who recently got divorced? How about people who have had someone they loved dearly die? For some, happiness may feel like a betrayal of their loss. “I shouldn’t be happy.”

Of course, when we care about someone, we want them to be “happy” or at least to have less pain. “It’s a new year. Start fresh. Everything will be OK, maybe even better.” The speaker is offering caring words but they may come across as insensitive. People who are grieving appreciate care and concern but would like to feel what they are feeling — good or bad, yes even sad.

There’s a well known saying: “new day, same …” You know it. For grievers a new year may just represent another day. It may also be the stark reality that now entering a new year they are without a job or home or loved one.

I don’t want to suggest that things can’t get “better” but the journey through grief is a personal one. Each traveler goes about it his/her/their own way. It is a gift to honor that journey and support them along the way.

Alan Wolfelt writes a lot about grief. He took the noun “companion” and turned it into a verb. He offers eleven tenets of companioning. Some of these include: being present with another’s pain and not taking it away; it’s about listening with your heart and not analyzing with your head; it’s about bearing witness to the struggles of others, not about judging or directing those struggles; it’s about learning from others, not about teaching them. That’s just a few but they all offer the griever the opportunity to be where they are.

It is hard to watch someone we care about suffer in any way. However, it may be a great gift to journey with that person, letting them lead and being their companion. In my experiences with those who have had a significant loss, they appreciate those who offer understanding about their personal journey, allowing them to be where they are and move forward at their own pace, in their own way.

Megan Devine, another writer and speaker who offers guidance on this grief journey, has a book entitled: “It’s OK that You’re Not OK.” In many ways it gives permission to grievers to feel what they feel and be wherever they are without judgment or direction from others. It brings comfort to grievers and let’s them know what they are feeling is normal and OK.

Because of my connection to grief and grievers I have greeted folks with these words: “May the new year be meaningful to you.” David Kessler, who worked with Elizabeth Kubler Ross, has added a sixth stage to her original five stages of grief (with her family’s permission). Stage six: Finding Meaning (within the context of grief and loss). Offering a message of meaning to all allows the hearers to experience whatever that may mean for them — today or throughout the year.

So, it is a new year. It may be a new beginning for some or a startling reminder of an ending. Let us be sensitive and aware of those who need our understanding. Perhaps this could be a year of careful listening. Maybe you will find yourself companioning a friend or someone to companion you as your journey on into 2023.

Whatever happens, know that there are those who care, who may not be perfect in their approach, but who want to be your companion in whatever the future holds. May each and all find meaning in 2023.

Evelyn Wald is Lutheran minister and the program director for Tides and a facilitator of support groups. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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