Crying During The Nutcracker: Grief and the Holidays

Short Reads

This time of year is hard for everyone.

The breakneck speed of life these days makes even normal tasks seem more difficult. Add to it the pressures of the holiday season and you have a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.

For many people, there is a layer on top of all of these pressures: grief.

No one is immune from grief. In fact, I would argue (and will be doing some graduate work on the thesis) that grief is the fundamental human condition.  

Never is this reality more evident than the holidays: memories of family traditions come flooding back with the opening notes of a Christmas carol or the images of that favorite Christmas movie. Preparations for the holidays dredge up long forgotten losses.

For me, the flood of emotions came back as I sat in a church pew and listened to the Lessons and Carols program of a local boarding school. As the middle school orchestra played a selection from The Nutcracker, I was transported immediately to my childhood trips to The Kennedy Center to see the production.

Every year my parents would dress my brother and me in our finest suits and drive us from Charlottesville to Washington D.C. to see the ballet performance of the Christmas classic. In the time between visits to The Kennedy Center, I would watch the VHS copy of The Nutcracker starring Macaulay Culkin.

When the middle school orchestra pulled their bows across their mistuned strings and played the first notes of the Overture I was washed over with the sweet, sharp pangs of grief.

I remembered Christmas mornings and birthday parties. I remembered days home sick in bed and days spent playing in the snow. I remembered where I was when I heard that my mom had died. I remembered what the fake grass at her graveside felt like as it crunched under my eight-year-old feet. I remembered what it felt like when I was told my father had died. I remembered standing alone and realizing that I didn’t know what to do without him.

All of this came back in the time it took a preteen orchestra to struggle through Tchaikovsky.

The holidays can be a minefield of grief: around every corner, there are memories and emotions and deep joys and deep pains waiting to reemerge.


This is only a problem if grief is a problem.

You see, grief is not something to get through. It is not an easy process with a clear start and finish date. Grief is a state that emerges after any loss, no matter how big or small.

The reality of grief is that it is always with you, just under the surface. At the holidays, the facade that our daily routine offers fades away and we see our situation for what it really is: we are always grieving and this is not a problem.

When the wave of grief crashed over me in that church pew I sat there and felt it. I listened to the music and was transported through the sadness and pain and joy. When the songs were over and the evening done, I still grieved the loss of my parents – as I will every holiday season.

I stood up from the pew and walked out of the church to go about my life, surrounded and supported by the people I love but see no more.

The holidays are hard for everyone because everyone is grieving: people they’ve lost, childhoods that are gone, opportunities and hopes that will never come true. We grieve the ideal Christmas dinner that we can’t cook or the perfect family photo that we can’t take. We grieve the person we wanted to be but can no longer become. We grieve our plans for the day that fall apart with the unexpected phone call from home.

There is a good chance you are grieving this holiday because grief is a fact of life and the holidays bring this fact to the surface.

My prayer is that you find time to sit with it, to listen to the music and let it wash over you. When the song is over, get up and keep walking.

Grief is only a problem if grief is a problem.