It’s Ok If You’re Not Feeling Very Merry

My grandfather died on Christmas Eve 1995.

I was living in Berlin, Germany, at the time as an exchange student.  We knew my grandfather was sick.  He had advanced heart failure.  He went to sleep that night looking forward to football the next day and he never woke up.

That was 26 years ago, but I remember that day like it was yesterday.

It was bone-chillingly cold outside and it was snowing.  My host mother came to get me to tell me that my parents were on the phone.  In those days a phone call to Europe was incredibly expensive. This was before email. Our main form of communication that year was letters.  I was so excited to talk to them.

Then that excitement changed.

After I hung up the phone, I couldn’t stop crying.  It wasn’t just the death of my grandfather.  My year in Berlin was one of the most challenging of my life.  I was homesick to the point of disabling sadness.  My host sister and I were in constant conflict.  I felt so alone.  I wanted to be home.  I wanted to be with my family.  

I also wanted a cigarette.  Yes, I smoked in 1995.  I didn’t have many friends in Berlin who didn’t.  I even rolled my own because it made John Travolta look so damn cool in Pulp Fiction, but I digress.  The point of this part of the story is that I was out of cigarettes. 

Between sobs I choked all of this out to my host mother. She was doing her best to be there for me.  It was so cold outside.  The stores were all closed.  I could walk to the closest cigarette machine, but it just felt so far away.  (It was the 1990s.  Cigarette machines were still a thing.) 

I didn’t know what to do.

That’s when my host mother said something to me that I will never forget. 

She took my hands in hers, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, “Right now you are very sad.  It’s ok to be very sad.  Let’s take a walk with sadness.”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly what she meant. Since my host mother was Bulgarian and German wasn’t her first language, I’m not sure if that’s exactly what she meant. Suddenly, though, that “walk with sadness” felt like the perfect thing to do.

We stepped outside into the bitter cold.  Oddly enough, the pain of the subzero windchill on my face felt wonderful.  The gusts wrapped themselves around us and held me present in that moment.  We walked in silence.

I don’t know if it was the cold, the holiday, or my insular focus, but I don’t remember seeing another person on the entire walk.  I don’t know how a city of 3.5 million can achieve complete silence, but I can’t remember a sound except the clunk-clunk-clunk of the cigarette machine dispensing my perfect poison.

I’ll never forget the feeling – like someone had dug out the flesh in the middle of my chest with a giant ice cream scoop.  I was hollow.  I almost expected to see the smoke from my cigarette rising out of my jacket.  I’ve since learned to recognize that sensation as grief and loneliness.

I didn’t know how to fill that hole so I just let it be there.

I walked with grief.  I didn’t try to fix it or make it go away. The amazing thing, though, was how that acceptance seemed to ease my pain.  By the time we returned home, the sensation in my face wasn’t the only thing that had diminished significantly.

This was the first time in my life that I remember just “allowing” an emotion.  One of the first things that I teach my clients is the power of allowing our feelings: all of them.  It’s incredible the lengths we will go to in order to avoid emotions we don’t want to feel.

I’ll tell you a little secret.  Life isn’t about being happy all the time.  The richness of our human experience is constructed from all our human emotions.  It’s impossible to enjoy the highs if you’ve never felt the lows.  That means that when you do feel those lows, nothing has gone wrong.

Calls to suicide hotlines tend to increase around the holidays.  There are many reasons for this, but I think that one of them is the expectation of joy and merriment that surrounds us during this time.  This is “the most wonderful time of the year” after all.  It’s easy to start to believe that if you’re not sharing in the merriment, something is wrong with you.

My gift to you this holiday season is to tell you that nothing is wrong with you.  It is ok to feel grief, sadness, disappointment, loneliness, anxiety, or any other less merry feeling right now.  If you feel up to it, try to take a walk with that emotion.  If you don’t, just sit with it.  Let it be there in your body.  You’ll be amazed how this simple act will lighten your load.

If you’d like to learn more about how to do this, I’d like to invite you to sign up for my free course How To Feel Better On Your Next Shift. You can also reach out to me directly by emailing  I’d love to tell you more about current coaching opportunities.