Navigating the Holidays After Major Loss


So many people I know (myself included) have experienced major losses over the past year that I’ve been thinking about it a lot as we enter this winter holiday season.

The winter holidays can be stressful under any circumstances, whether we experience their stressors as welcome or unwelcome. There are gifts to purchase, expectations (real or imagined) of others to face, invitations to events that we may welcome or dread (or both!), winter travel to navigate, crowds in town, strains on finances, the presence of friends or family members we may not like that much, or the absence of those we do…and on and on.  And for those who have experienced loss, the usual seasonal stresses may be significantly  amplified.

RjwL9926881, photo by Flash90

The loss of a loved one through death, divorce or estrangement brings with it an array of related losses during the holidays, some of which can be anticipated and prepared for, and many of which can’t. Maybe your wife always put the lights on the tree, or your daughter and son-in-law brought the grandchildren to visit, or dad gave a dramatic reading of  “T’was the Night Before Christmas”. While you or someone else could decorate the tree, put the lights up, recite a poem, or fill the empty chair at the table, especially in the first year after a loss it may feel much too soon to “fill the hole” by taking over (or asking someone else to take over) the absent person’s role: after all, the loved one’s absence is their presence in the early stages (and by “early,” I mean at least the first 2 years) of mourning. And there are so many individual, little decisions to make. Do you send a holiday card this year, or not? If so, what’s the message? And what about that traditional family picture greeting card, after a child has died? Then there are the unanticipated emotional “stings”: the sight in the closet of that holiday sweater he always wore. Or you’ve decided to send a card, but then oops, that’s right: it will only be you signing it this year, not the two of you. Or those toys the grandkids loved to play with that will stay on the shelf this year.

Christmas lights, Bokeh effect

For these reasons, even those of us who have been coping okay with a given loss can find that the holiday season “pushes the refresh button” on our grief, as we encounter the specific losses associated with the holiday season— losses that can’t be grieved until they come along.

What to do? Anyone who knows me very well has probably heard me say this a bazillion times, but it bears repeating: Grieving itself is the way through grief. Feeling, acknowledging and getting through are all that is really called for…and that is plenty.

That said, here are some specific things that can help ease holiday stress, during early grief.

1.  Don’t avoid the holidays. They’ll come anyway, and avoiding them now will mean dreading them again next year. Feel your feelings, and prepare as best you can for the hardest days.

2.  Make plans with others tentative.  Because the emotions of grief are so unpredictable, it’s hard to know how you’ll be feeling when the time comes for a given event. When accepting invitations, let others know that you may change your mind, and why…and then do what feels right when the time comes.

3.  Do only what has meaning for you. Think about what supports you and makes you feel most comfortable, and do only those things. If you are reluctant to disappoint others, remember that taking care of your own needs when you are grieving will make you more available to others again in the long run.

4.  Consider shopping early or online. As Julie Siri of Journey Through Loss puts it, grieving people often see reality through distorted lenses.  If you have lost a spouse, it may appear that all the world is “coupled”  with happy , healthy, married people […] If you have lost a child, everywhere you gaze you will see only energetic, rosy-cheeked children with smiling parents.   During the holidays these perceptions can be accentuated:  the malls are filled with joyful shoppers, Holiday music, colorful decorations, and an exciting hustle and bustle in the air. A grieving person may feel alone and depressed in this environment.

5.  Let others know what they can do. people who care about you can’t  know how to support you unless you tell them how you feel and what you need, as there is no formula or single “right way” to support a grieving person. Saying honestly that “Today is a hard day for me, and I’d appreciate some company” (or “…and I feel like being quietly alone”) lets people know what would be (and not be) supportive at a given time.

6.  Choose who to be around…and not. Spend time people who can be okay with tears, and who won’t tell you how you should and shouldn’t feel!

7.  Remember that our important relationships don’t end, they change. For many people, spending time with people who had a relationship also with the person who left or died— people you can reminisce with— is an important part of making that transition from how you were with the loved one then, to how you are with them now. Julie Siri again:  You are still impacted by your loved ones’ love, guided by their words, touched by their sense of humor.  Acknowledge the person who died, write them a card, get them a gift.  Honor this relationship in whatever manner you find helpful. Reminiscing with others about a person who died is an important way that we develop and nurture the new way (through our memories) of continuing to be in relationship with the people we love.

8. Connect with the larger community of grievers as an additional way to share experience and support during this time. Local hospice programs always have special holiday programs and holiday-focused information and resources to share, and there are a lot of good online sites that provide information and connections with other grievers., and are two of many.20161204_180331

In the end, there’s “no way out but through” the special emotional challenges that the holidays bring to the ongoing process of grieving, and no right way to navigate them, nor formula for easing the pain. But acknowledging, accepting (and for some of us, talking about) our feelings and experiences, without judging ourselves for what we feel (or for what we don’t feel, like “cheery”!) during the holiday season can go a long way toward relieving the additional pain that comes from thinking that “However I am I should be some different way.” However we are is exactly how we “should be,” as grieving itself navigates our course through it.



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