DECEMBER is the toughest time of the year for those who have recently lost a loved one, or for anyone who has encountered a loss of any kind.
The holidays can bring out the best and the worst in us. It really all depends on how you perceive the holidays to be. Time with family can be both enjoyable and stressful. The empty place at the table is a stark reminder of the person who has recently gone. Some Christmas carols only heighten the sadness and intensify the ache that comes with the loss.
Family get-togethers may be extremely difficult, so you need to decide ahead of time what you can handle comfortably, and let your friends and family know ahead of time. If you can’t handle the responsibility of the family dinner, do not hesitate to turn over the task to someone else this year. Don’t set expectations too high for yourself during the holiday season. Do things a little differently.
Changes are okay, and this is the perfect time to vary the routine a bit. If you open presents on Christmas Day, move the gift opening to Christmas Eve. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to handle the day. Don’t be pressured to follow tradition if you think it will only make you feel worse.
Now, in fact, in a period following a major loss, is a good time to create new traditions for you and your family. Keep only what is comfortable and what will help you move through your grief.
Consider doing something special for someone else. Stepping out of the shadow of your grief to help make life better or more joyful for someone else is always very healing. You might opt to make a donation in memory of your loved one. Donate a part, or all, of the money that you would have spent on a gift for your departed loved one to a charity. Do volunteer work close to Christmas. Use your sadness in a positive way by channeling it into improving someone else’s life.
Emotionally, physically and psychologically, the holidays can really be draining so make sure you get ample time to rest and replenish yourself. You will need every bit of strength to make it through this first Christmas without your loved one. What you decide to do on this first year, you don’t have to do again next year. It will be up to you and your family.
It may also help to recognize and remember your loved one’s presence in the family. Some friends create a special corner in their home and light a Christmas candle in remembrance of the loved one now gone. You may choose to hang a stocking for your loved one in which people can put their notes containing their thoughts and feelings. Do whatever you think will be helpful in remembering and celebrating the loved one’s memory during the holidays.
I’ve often suggested to clients that they take a break from everyone and go off on a vacation somewhere they’ve never been to. Planning, packing, and all the other details that come with travel, be it local or foreign, help keep your mind off the holidays, and you are able to share the time in a different and hopefully less painful setting where you can build new memories with family who is still here.
Crying in public can be a challenge, and I remember the first Christmas after my son died, how I almost broke down in the supermarket when I spied his favorite snack on one of the aisles. The holidays have a way of magnifying feelings of loss, and it is important and natural to embrace the sadness that comes with it.
If you feel like crying, go ahead. Don’t worry or be afraid of making a spectacle of yourself. That’s just an additional and useless burden. Let it go, let it flow. Trust me, it will make you feel better.
If you are a parent and your children see you handle your tears well, you also allow them space not to be afraid to grieve well, too. Just don’t scare them with major emotional outbursts.
There will come a time when you will enjoy the holidays again. It may come after a year, two years, or three years, but I assure you that one day your joy will return. Admittedly some years, some Christmases may be more difficult than others; honor that sadness but do not wallow in it. And if this holiday season should somehow find you smiling and laughing, don’t suppress it or feel guilty about it. Laughter and joy are not disrespectful.
Give yourself and your family members permission to celebrate and find joy in the holidays. Perhaps it’s what your loved one would want for you, too.