It is most likely, that most of us have experienced the horrible pain of losing a loved one. The finality of death is hard enough to cope with. When it happens around a holiday, or the holidays roll around, it seems to add insult to injury. Little things seem to constantly come up to serve as reminders of our loss. In addition, everyone seems to be filled with cheer, when all we want to do is cry. These things make it extra difficult to deal with a current tragedy, or even the past loss of a loved one, during the holidays. I hope this article will provide some useful, and practical, suggestions to help make it through this time of year.
What are we supposed to do now…
If this is the first holiday after the loss of a loved one, it is hard to know what to do and how to act. If we don’t celebrate, we may feel like we are letting down our loved ones who are still physically with us. If we do celebrate, we may feel that we are dishonoring, or “forgetting” about, our loved one who is no longer physically here. The best thing we can do for ourselves, and those around us, is find a balance between the two extremes. However, it is imperative that you find a balance that works for you. There is no right, or wrong, way to grieve. Another thing to remember is that the anticipation of the holiday, is usually worse than the actual day. Try to get through one day, or moment, at a time if you need too. Try to hold onto the truth that your loved one wants you to be able to move on and find happiness again. Moving on does not mean forgetting. Everyone does this at their own pace, so don’t be hard on yourself.
Create Traditions to Celebrate Your Loved One
Christmas, and other holidays, can be extremely painful when experiencing loss. However, it may surprise you to know that the holiday season also provides you with many occasions in which you can heal. Keeping a connection to your loved one is not unhealthy, and is normal. You don’t need to try to forget the pain of their loss, during the holidays, in order to celebrate. Instead, you can incorporate special traditions to celebrate, and remember, the precious memories that you shared with your loved one. This will also help your friends and family support you in a meaningful way. Many times people don’t know how to act, or what to say, when they are around a person who is grieving. Helping you celebrate your loved one, with a special tradition to honor them, is a way they can offer comfort, and be a source of strength for you.
Specific examples of traditions that can be created to honor your loved one could include some of the following:
- Set aside a special time, with family and friends, to reminisce about your loved one. Bring out photo albums, videos, special treasures from their hobbies, or anything else that reminds you of your loved one’s time with you. Spend time with your friends sharing stories, laughing, crying, honoring, and talking about the wonderful person whom you miss. Some people may choose to do this with a large group of friends and family, others may feel more comfortable with only one or two close people, or you can even do this alone if you prefer. You decide what makes the tradition most meaningful for you.
- Did your loved one have a special cause they were passionate about? Maybe they did volunteer work, or contributed financially to a specific charity, or other important organizations. The holidays provide so many opportunities to volunteer and help others. If your loved one donated money or time to a specific cause, maybe you could right a special letter about your loved one, and send it to the organization with a donation in their honor. Did your loved one enjoy working with children, animals, the elderly, the homeless, or any other special group? Maybe you could collect toys for needy children, pet food for a local animal shelter, volunteer, or collect donations for a food bank. Anything special activity that you could do, that your loved one may have been involved in if they were still here, is a way to honor their memory. You can think of this as a way to carry on their legacy.
- Sometimes the loss is too fresh, and the grief is too much, to get involved in a big project, and that is okay. For example, volunteering or attending any events, after a recent loss, is probably way to much for most people to handle. You can still honor your loved one in simple ways. Place a special ornament on the tree in your loved one’s honor. Light a candle for them during the holiday dinner, with a moment of silence, to think about your loved one and to remember they are still here in your hearts. Make a special decoration that reminds you of something they enjoyed, or a special wreath to place at their grave site. Modify these suggestions to find something special that works for you.
- Keep your loved one with you symbolically. Carry with you a picture, a small trinket such as a watch, wedding ring, special gift, or maybe a letter they wrote or a card they gave you. Any special reminder of your loved one will work for this suggestion. Use this as a way to symbolize they are still with you in spirit and in your heart. This may help you feel close to them and allow you to participate in small ways, without feeling as though you are leaving them out of the holiday activities.
Remember the Importance of Finding Balance
I mentioned already the importance of finding balance during the holidays. You may feel torn between wanting to isolate yourself and grieve, while still wanting to be there for your loved ones who are still with you. This is especially true if you have younger children. So you will need to find a balance, between grieving for those who are no longer here, and staying involved with the living. Again, a balance that works for you. It is normal to feel confusion, guilt, distracted, forgetful, tired, annoyed, bitter, resentful, heartsick, despondent, and just completely “out of sorts”. Everyone grieves in their own way, and it is normal to have a wide range of changing feelings. Give yourself a break and understand this is part of grief, and you deserve time to sort through your feelings. You are the only one who can decide how much time you can handle “celebrating” with your family, and the amount of time you need to spend alone. With that being said, I am going to offer some suggestions on how you can still celebrate during the holidays, without being expected to completely halt your grieving process. In other words, you don’t need to put on a “fake smile” and suffer through. There is hope to find small moments of happiness during the holidays.
Seek Out Healing Moments
If you spend the entire season focusing on your lost loved one this can increase your feelings of sadness. Spending time with your precious loved one’s who are still alive can help. It is healthy and absolutely normal to not spend every minute focused on your loss. If you find yourself feeling moments of happiness, this is okay. It is just fine to be distracted, this does not mean you are dishonoring, or forgetting about your lost loved one. Plan specific times when you will do something enjoyable, if possible include your loved ones. Even something as simple as helping the family decorate a tree, bake some cookies, or wrap some presents. Only do as much as you feel up to doing, but there is no harm in trying to be involved in some small way. You can always remove yourself if things become to much.
Another suggestion…giving time to help a person in need could be helpful. Helping others can make you feel useful, and occupy your mind for a bit of time, giving you a “break” from your grieving process. I am not talking about charities or big volunteering commitments. There are people around us everyday who would greatly appreciate small acts of kindness. We may have to spend some time thinking about this one, and be creative, but there are always opportunities to help. Even if it’s just for an hour or two. For example, is there a home bound person, or nursing home resident, you could deliver a small gift too? Or maybe a tired new mother, who would love to have someone to just sit and rock the baby, while she gets some house work done. A neighbor who could use help walking a dog? No matter how small, it will make you feel useful. Plus, children and animals can be very therapeutic. They are so innocent and accepting, they are easy to be around when we are feeling sad. (Note: If your loss involves a pet or young child, than you may not be ready to spend time with other people’s children or pets.)
If your a person of faith, you might plan to attend a holiday service at your church. Use this time to reflect on your loved one and draw comfort from your church family. If you used to attend this type of service with your lost loved one, plan to take a good friend with you, and be prepared to leave early if you need too. It’s okay, you call the shots. You are the only one who knows what is helpful to you.
You may not believe any of these things will be helpful to you. But you also may be pleasantly surprised that you do feel, at the very least, fleeting moments of happiness. However, you will have to decide what you feel you can, and cannot do. Do what feels right to you. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season, especially after the death of a loved one.
Changing Toxic Traditions
This may be the perfect opportunity to change traditions that didn’t work for you. Maybe you never particularly enjoyed the location of the holiday dinner. Although your still invited, if the event was not enjoyable to you, decline the invitation and create a new tradition that is better suited to your liking. The same goes for other traditions. For example, maybe you don’t drink and the yearly New Year’s Eve party was filled with those who like to “whoop it up”. Now is your chance to break off from unhealthy or unhappy traditions, move away from toxic people, and so forth.
Dealing with Outbreaks of Anguish
There is no doubt that you will feel moments of overwhelming sadness, no matter what you do. The loss of a loved one is a difficult challenge. Your going to feel sad, it’s normal to cry, get angry, want to be alone, not want to be alone, your emotions may feel like a roller coaster. When you feel these intense moments of sadness, let yourself feel, but it might be helpful to try to redirect your thoughts to a happy memory of your loved one. You may still cry, or maybe you’ll break out into laughter over a funny moment you shared. The trick is to try and feel the emotions in a positive light, with your loved one in your heart, using the happy memories that you both shared. These memories can’t be taken from you. Sometimes it is helpful to remember how you would feel if the situation were reversed. If you saw your loved one hurting, you would undoubtedly try to cheer them up. You might bring up something funny that happened, or tell them your favorite joke. Let your loved one’s memories, allow your loved one, to do that for you. They would if they could be here, right? Try letting the memories you shared unite you and your loved one in spirit, when those moments of intense sadness hit you.
If you have recently lost a loved one, I understand there is no way to completely remove the sense of agony, and reluctance, to celebrate the holidays. I hope nothing I have said in this article sounded as if I was trying to minimize your suffering. I know the pain can feel unbearable. However, I do pray the suggestions in this article might help you find some reassurance and hope, so that you can experience some joy during the holidays.
If you have helpful traditions, or suggestions that help you cope, please share in the comments below. They may be helpful to others who are also grieving. If you would like to share your favorite memories about your loved one, or even something your struggling with, I would like to hear about it, and offer support. We need to care for each other during these difficult times. I wish you the best as you celebrate with your loved ones who are still with you, and those who are tucked safely forever in your heart.