The holidays are filled with joy and celebration for most people, but when you are grieving the loss of a loved one the holidays can be filled with endless days and nights of sadness and longing, especially in the first year after a death.
Memories of holidays past will inevitably come up as you make note of who is missing from the activities. It’s okay to recognize that this year is different from years past. Allow yourself to express what you are feeling, be it joy or sorrow. Your body and mind will naturally have a need to explore the full range of emotion.
Presented here is an alphabet of suggestions for you to consider as you face the holidays after the death of a loved one. Please note that everyone grieves in their own unique way, so there is no “one way” or “right way” to grieve. Likewise, children and teens grieve differently from adults, often with periods of play and laughter interspersed with periods of sadness. These suggestions aren’t meant to be a “one size fits all”, but rather a “something for everyone”. Choose and use the ones that appeal to you at your particular place in grief.
Avoid trying to live up to others expectations. You are the only expert when it comes to what you need as you grieve. Another person’s admonition to “get over it” or “it’s time to move on” often reflect their discomfort with grief and pain.
Be where you need to be and with whom. You don’t have to do everything or try to feel happy when you aren’t. If it’s helpful to leave town for the holidays, do it. If you want to stay home and decline invitations, do it. If you know the traditional party will lift your spirits, go!
Call on those who you can count on to support you during this difficult time. Is there a friend with whom you can just sit and cry? Is there someone who can bake extra Christmas cookies so you don’t feel like you have to do it?
Delegate the responsibilities you don’t feel up to doing. Not feeling up to writing the year-end family letter but your spouse or child wants to do it? Let them. A different perspective on the year may be helpful for them as they grieve and offer support to you.
Eat and exercise. It may be the last thing you want to do, but it is well known that a healthy diet and exercise do contribute to your ability to cope with grief. The natural endorphins released through exercise will give you energy and strength, even if it’s just 10 minutes of brisk walking each day.
Forgive those who don’t understand your grief. Those who have less experience with loss may say things that are intended to be kind, encouraging and sympathetic but have the opposite effect. Try to let go of their painful words. If necessary, choose to spend time only with those who understand and support you in your grief.
Give yourself permission to grieve as openly or privately as suites you. If you are ready to go through your beloved’s personal affects and reallocate them, give yourself permission to do it. Presenting those items as holiday gifts may be quite meaningful for the recipient, especially if the item represents a special memory or connection to the deceased.
Hold on to the memories that bring you comfort and peace. Is there an article of clothing that holds a special memory of the deceased? Make it into a pillow that you can hold on to, or wrap it around yourself for comfort at home. Look at the photo albums and scrapbooks of happier times. Create a memory box for yourself or your family that shows how you want to remember the deceased. Your family and friends may appreciate time to do this together during the holidays.
Inspiration- Seek out or follow your inspiration. Times that are filled with emotion sometimes lead to creative expression. Creative expression helps to work through the grief by giving an expression and outlet to the full spectrum of emotions. The physical act of creation has a wonderfully cathartic effect too. What’s your creative outlet? Song writing? Poetry? Painting? Wood working? Maybe something new you haven’t tried before. You can do this alone or with someone—a friend who shares the same interest, your children or grandchildren, a teacher, etc.
Join in. The holidays are a time for coming together. If you are feeling up to it, get out and join the activities. This may be the time to renew old relationships that have grown distant during an illness or with time. It may also be a good time to start new relationships with others who are grieving or who share a common interest. If it begins to be too much too soon, you can back off.
Keep the faith, however you define it. From what do you draw strength and direction? On what do you place your belief? Faith means different things to different people, and keeping the faith gives meaning and supports hope in life continuing without the physical presence of the deceased. Is your faith in God and a religious tradition and community? Then maintain the practices and relationships that sustain you; likewise, if your faith is in family or friends. Many churches offer special worship services for those who are grieving during the holidays.
Listen-Memories based in sound can reconnect you with the deceased in profound and often unexpected ways. Make a playlist or CD of songs of special significance (your first dance together, a song that was playing when first you met, the silly song he/she used to whistle/sing to the kids, etc.). Do you have a voicemail saved on your phone from your loved one? Have it recorded to disk or mp3 so you can play it when you need to hear their voice.
Moment- Be in the moment. For many mourners, it takes everything one has to make it through the day let alone the week. It’s okay. Focus on what is in front of you. Dying and death have a way of helping you recognize what is most important and to prioritize those things. Channel your energy into what your priorities tell you to do. If you need help meeting the priorities, ask a trusted individual for assistance. Knowing what you need and asking for it is a sign of strength rather than weakness.
Needs- The holiday season offers many opportunities that don’t come at other times of the year. For the grieving, this may present a burdensome expectation. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do. The truth is we can’t do it all even when we want to. Allow yourself the grace to tend to your needs and the needs of family you feel up to meeting.
Open- Be open to the ways in which the deceased are still with us. Many bereaved individuals report seeing the deceased in dreams or feeling their presence. Notice the little coincidences that remind you of the one you miss.
Plan ahead. Get your calendar out and make note of days that you expect to be more difficult. Is there a special anniversary or annual celebration for which you’d like to make an alternate plan? Determine with whom and how you would most like to spend those days. Being prepared for the possibility of overwhelming emotions will help you cope when the time comes.
Quiet- Allow yourself times to be quiet and sit with your grief. Opening yourself to feel the pain of loss helps you to work through the feelings and thoughts of grief that will eventually lead to resilience and reconciliation over time. Grief doesn’t go away on its own, it requires-- and often demands-- your attention to work through it.
Reflect- Take time to remember and review the life of the deceased. What did he/she contribute in his/her lifetime? For what will she/he be remembered? What were his/her greatest accomplishments? How would she/he want to be remembered? What meaning can be found in her/his life? What is different about your life because of the one who died?
Spirits- As the songs tell us, the holidays are a time for bright spirits. Sometimes the pain and sadness of loss get too much and there is a temptation to turn to substances for a lift or an out. Rather than reaching for a bottle, reach for a friend or a professional to aid you in your grief. There is greater strength in facing your grief with someone who understands your pain and can offer support.
Thanks- Give thanks for the life of the deceased and for their impact in your life. Light a candle each evening in their memory. Give thanks for those who have supported you through this difficult time and send a note.
Unwind- The events around the death of a loved one are very stressful and the effects of that stress can be ongoing. If you are becoming irritable, short or easily angered, take a step back and a deep breath. It’s easy to get wound up with all the details of settling an estate, tending to a grieving self and family. Call a time-out. Do what soothes you most. You’ll be better equipped to face the everyday responsibilities and your grief if you get a good rest.
Visit with the deceased; continue to talk about them and to them. Part of working through your grief is to develop a new relationship with them. You can’t erase their life and history, why try to pretend they didn’t exist nor leave an impact? Light a candle and put it in their place at the dinner table or in the room when you want to feel close to them.
Write about your grief journey. Put your thoughts and feelings into writing in a journal to express what’s going on for you during this time. Write about special memories and stories that you don’t want to forget—good times and bad. Write a letter to the deceased and put words on the ways in which they are missed. Is there something you didn’t get to say before the death? Put that in the letter. Is there something you wished the deceased had said to you? Write about that, too.
EXpectations- Adjust your expectations for this holiday season. Expect it to be different than years before, because it is. Someone very important is missing. This may be a good time to re-evaluate your gift giving plans. You can still be thoughtful and loving even with a lowered expectation. Be kind and gentle with yourself and others if expectations don’t get met in the way you hoped.
Yield- In order to find the blessing after the grief, one must first experience and work through the grief. In this way, yielding to grief will in time yield a new normal. Grief needs an outward expression in mourning. When you stop trying to deny or fight off the grief and, little by little yield to, have the grief out you will find that the grief lessens measure by measure.
Zzzzs- Many bereaved individuals experience sleep problems. It’s not unusual to have trouble getting or staying asleep or sleeping too much. It’s a natural part of grief and can leave you feeling even more exhausted than you already do. Naps may help, but if you find that sleep problems continue for more than a week or two it may be a good idea to talk with your doctor. Good sleep is also essential for processing and coping with your grief, as well as keeping yourself safe from accidents.
Grief and mourning have no schedule and certainly no respect for the calendar. However, with a little awareness and a lot of grace, even the bereft can get through the holidays.