The holidays are upon us again. If you are grieving, I can tell you that they are not the best time of year. In fact they can be the worst time of year. The holidays are different from anniversaries or birthdays where only you are aware of the date with special meaning. There is no escaping the holidays in our society. The evidence of these days are everywhere from the gas station, to the grocery store, to your doctor’s office, or a simple trip to the pharmacy there is no escaping the holidays. For most people the holidays are the saddest and loneliest time of the year. So how do you handle your grief and honor your loved one when you’re feeling so sad? Holidays are clearly some of the roughest terrain we navigate after a loss. The ways we handle them are as individual as we are,” said Kübler-Ross and Kessler. “Whatever your experience, just remember that sadness is allowed, because death, as they say, doesn’t take a holiday.”
- Who is going to carve the turkey now that Dad has died?
- Who will do the annual Thanksgiving toast?
- I have zero energy to decorate, shop for Christmas, or be around others during Christmas this year.
- I feel so empty without my spouse. I don’t want to celebrate Chanukah.
When you have lost someone special, your world losses its celebratory qualities. Holidays only magnify the loss. The sadness feels stronger and the loneliness goes deeper. The need for support may be the greatest during the holidays. Pretending you don’t hurt and or it is not a difficult time of the year is just not the truth for you. You can and will get through the holidays. It is not the grief you want to avoid, it is the pain. Grief is the way out of the pain. I talk about the three P’s for this time of year, plan, predict, prepare. There are a number of ways to incorporate your loved one and your loss into the holidays.
Some Tips for Coping with Grief at the Holidays
1. Give yourself permission to be sad.- Many try to avoid their feelings of sadness or “turn it off” in public, so as not to dampen anyone else’s holiday spirit. There is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
2. Decide how you want to celebrate, if you want to celebrate at all.- “It seems like it will be important to keep some of the traditions that remind us of our loved one, but build some new ones that we can look forward to in a different way,” Kübler-Ross and Kessler agree. They recommend reviewing your holiday traditions and deciding what works best for you and your family: perhaps you will continue to participate in the same family traditions, while honoring the memory of the loved one you lost, or maybe you’ll choose to forego the celebrations for a season or two and come back to them when it feels right, with new traditions and memories to make. Whatever you choose, it’s important that you move through the holidays in the way that feels most comfortable to you, not in a way that’s expected of you. “Don’t allow the holidays to just happen,” says Dr. Wortman. “Also, try to use a Plan A/Plan B approach to the holidays. Plan A might involve spending Christmas or Hanukkah with relatives; Plan B might mean having a simple dinner and watching a movie at home. Having a Plan B can be comforting even if you don’t use it.”
3. Let others know how you’d like to move through the season. -The other people in your life, though well-intentioned, may have no idea how to help you move through the holiday season—unless you tell them. Be very upfront and clear about how you want to celebrate the holidays and honor the memory of your loved one, if at all. If you want to talk about what you’re going through, tell them. If you want to avoid the many festivities and decorative merriment—even if only for a year—let them know.
4. Do recognize your loved one’s presence in your celebrations. - Create an outward symbol of their presence in your heart: light a candle for them on the dining table, hang their stocking in remembrance. Remember some of the good times from years past.
5. Do something for yourself or for another- For some, accepting the importance of self-care is a necessary step for this season. Allow yourself time off, see a movie or get a massage.
b. For others, doing something for another feels like the right way to share and honor the love that you hold for your lost loved one. Visit a nursing home, volunteer at a food pantry or bake cookies for your neighbors.
6. Create your own sanity pack- This can be literal such as a bag filled with your favorite DVDs, books, music, magazines or chocolate. For others it may be scheduling a yoga class at a certain time when you know a party is going on. You have tangible items that bring you comfort and you can open your “sanity pack” after returning home from a stressful meeting or unwelcome encounter. These are things to create a DISTRACTION and sometimes these are things that will get you through the very rough moments.
7. Create a new tradition or ritual that accommodates your current situation. Some people find comfort in the old traditions. Others find them unbearably painful. Discuss with your family the activities you want to include or exclude this year. Some examples of new rituals and traditions include:
- Announce beforehand that someone different will carve the turkey.
- Create a memory box. You could fill it with photos of your loved one or written memory notes from family members and friends. Young children could include their drawings in the memory box.
- Light a candle in honor of your absent loved one.
- Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
- Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations.
The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one. The best way to cope with that first holiday season is to plan ahead, get support from others and take it easy.