When we have lost a loved one, the holiday season can be a painful reminder of how terrible you are feeling instead of bringing warmth, love and excitement. The holidays are especially significant because they are familiar signs of time. They seem to have a way of filling our memories with warm glimpses of good times shared with the people we love most. What happens then, when one of those people is gone? The holidays still rush on; people all around are making their usual plans as if they didn’t notice your broken heart. They try to cheer you with their laughter, include you in holiday cheer, and it’s obvious that few can understand your numbing pain. The added stress of the holidays can contribute to increased anxiety and depression. There are no special privileges or special parking places for those crippled with pain. In watching the celebration of others, one feels even more isolated. On the other hand, we may also catch ourselves singing with a Christmas carol and than feel a sense of betrayal that we can actually be enjoying moments without our loved one. Grief is not rational.
Grieving over the loss of a loved one is a necessary and natural process. Time and balance are important components. The first few years are perhaps the most difficult, but even years later, the holidays may lack the meaning they once had for you. No two people grieve the same and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Tradition plays a special role in celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years. When a loved one is missing during these celebrations it can force a change in all of these traditions. Traditional times you have shared underscore the significance of the loss… “Dad always hung Christmas lights while mom cooked Thanksgiving dinner”.
The full sense of loss of someone loved never occurs all at once. The onset of the holiday season often makes us realize how much our life has changed by the loss. Perhaps your major need is to acknowledge and work to survive the naturalness of the “holiday grief”. Many people I have had the privilege of working with, as well as my own experience, suggest that for some of us, the anticipation of the holiday is sometimes worse than the actual days itself.
The holidays can become a time of reflection and peace, a time to cherish the gift your loved one has been—and continues to be—in the life of your family.
While there are no simple guidelines that will make it easy to cope with grief during the holiday season, hopefully the following suggestions may help you make your personal experience more tolerable:
- Be patient and realistic. Plan ahead so that you are not overwhelmed by responsibilities at the last moment. When you are grieving it is difficult to make decisions, so make lists. Prioritize things. Decide what is important to you this holiday season, and scratch the rest off of the list for this year. You can always add back things in the years to come.
- Listen to your heart and acknowledge your limits. Become aware of your needs and express them to family and friends with whom you plan to spend the holidays.
- Encourage others to share their feelings, too, so that everyone affected by the death of your loved one has an opportunity to express his or her wishes about holiday plans.
- Remember it is okay to say no. You don’t have to accept every invitation that comes your way. Do what you can this holiday season, and let it be sufficient. Don’t try to tackle all the decorations. Just decorate a small area. There is nothing wrong with simplicity.
- Don’t deny yourself the pleasures of good food and companionship out of sense of obligation to the deceased. Remember that your loved one would want to see you smiling, happy, and surrounded by those you hold dear.
- Adapt cherished traditions. When grief and loss overwhelms us at the holidays, we are tempted to scrap the whole thing. To do absolutely nothing. But you can keep traditions alive in ways that make sense given your new reality. For instance, if the fact that you are not buying a gift for your departed loved one this year saddens you, buy a simple gift that you know he or she would have liked and give it to someone who otherwise would not have a gift. If you are alone this year as a result of your loss, find a way to share a part of the holidays with others. Visit a soup kitchen or shelter.
- Allow the tears to come, but look for joy amidst the pain. As you unpack and sift through holiday decorations, understand that along with warm, loving memories, you will be unpacking some heartache as well. Don’t deny yourself the gift of healing tears. You may decide you can not bring yourself to see the previous ornaments you shared and may purchase new ones.
Be patient and know that every process, even grief, has an ending. People want us to get over the loss, we will never get over the loss but we can find a place of acceptance. You hurt deep because you were blessed to have the capacity to love deep. In fact I don’t think you would want to get over it. There is a difference in unresolved grief and remembering. We never want to forget tragic events in history such as the holocaust, slavery, 9/11, Katrina, etc. because these were somebody’s loved one and in remembering we keep their spirit alive. Your life, my life, will not be the same again but it can be good again with the beginning of a new phase of your life. To acknowledge and move toward these feelings is healthier than attempting to repress or deny them. It is helpful to seek support through, medical professionals, therapy and clergy. To have someone just to hear you without offering “feel good” advice may be what you need.
Remember…don’t let anyone take away your grief during the holidays. Try to love yourself and allow yourself to be embraced by caring, compassionate people.
Joanne Koegl, M.A. is a Licensed Marriage, Family Therapist in Private Practice in Pasadena. CA. Joanne specializes with all types of losses and couples therapy. Joanne is also the aftercare specialist on The New Ricki Lake Show and was the Aftercare Producer on Dr. Drew's Life Changers. She can be reached at 626-762-0773.