• Blog Post
  • Matt Juzenas

The Healing Magic of Holiday Nostalgia

Photo: Matt Juzenas / Crisis Prevention Institute
In their book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant write, "'Nostalgia' comes from the Greek words nostos and algos, which mean 'return' and 'pain.' Nostalgia is literally the suffering that we feel when we yearn for the past to come back to us, yet psychologists find that it is mostly a pleasant state. After people reflect on an event, they tend to feel happier and more connected to others. They often find life more meaningful and become inspired to create a better future. Rather than ignoring painful milestones from the past, we try to mark them in the present."
Some of the happiest memories of my childhood are our family’s winter holidays. Each year we spent Christmas Eve visiting my grandparents—we’d eat a wonderful Lithuanian lunch with my Dad's parents, and then dinner with my Mom's parents. There would be a fancy spread with trays of Danish open-faced sandwiches, a special present for each of us to open, and a midnight service at a beautiful local church. It was always a magical night.
But the zenith of this memory, for me, was sitting in the back of our station wagon as my dad drove us all back home to Milwaukee. We'd race Santa and his reindeer to the house as my brother and I fought to stay awake. Dad pointed out every blinking red light atop a power line, or blinking plane, "Look! There they are! We better get you right to bed!" And he got us safely home, tucked into bed, before Santa's arrival every time.
This summer, we unexpectedly said goodbye to my father. One Sunday afternoon in May, he collapsed in the kitchen and was gone. For as long as I can remember, Wally Juzenas has always been the guiding role model for how I try to live my life—and in an instant, he left us.
Before my father died, my parents had planned for our entire family to gather along the lake in Door County, Wisconsin to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. All five kids, our spouses, and eight grandchildren were scheduled to converge on a rented cabin over Independence Day Weekend—of this year.
It's funny how things work out. That cabin they’d rented turned out to be right at the entrance of Peninsula State Park, which houses the cemetery where my parents had purchased their plots years before. On the day we’d intended for their anniversary party, we held a memorial. We said goodbye to Dad, burying him under a big tree in the park.
While we were staying at the cabin, I collected six stones from the lakeshore, worn smooth at the water’s edge, and brought them home. They sat on my dining room table for a few months. It was right around my parents’ actual wedding anniversary in September that I decided to draw a tree on each of them, each one a little different. This act of therapeutic creativity, one of many I’ve undertaken since my father’s death, helped me join a healing sweetness to the sadness that I felt—my nostalgia inspired me to connect with my heart to the present moment and to undertake positive acts of self-care.
It only dawned on me later that I had exactly six stones detailed with trees, gathered from the park whose trees my father was buried under. So I determined that this year, I’ll give each of my four siblings and my mom one of the rocks from that special week, keeping one for myself—along with a picture of all six rocks together. I hope it will be a reminder that though we’ve shared great heartache this year, we also spent many beautiful moments together as a family, supporting each other. These small stones will be simple, sweet reminders of Dad; symbols that we are all connected in both our grief and celebration.
This holiday season, and every day for that matter, I choose to embrace the nostalgia of Christmases past as a tool of mindful connection and healing. I won’t shy away from telling the stories and memories I hold dear, because sharing them will bring me closer to my loved ones. Spending time honoring our love for him and each other, we will carry him with us in our hearts now, and in the holidays yet to come.
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one this holiday season, I am sorry. I hope that you can find some comfort in the memories of those you have lost. I hope that you can celebrate by sharing those memories with someone. I hope that your heart is flooded with memories others choose to share with you.
And I hope that you give yourself the freedom to create new memories and traditions. Take that healing process of nostalgic reflection, and allow it to inspire you to cultivate a rich and meaningful experience here in the present moment.
Big, giant hugs and happy holidays to you.
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