Blue Christmas... Navigating Grief And The Holidays

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The stockings are hung, the tree is trimmed and smells of the season are wafting from the kitchen. But I can’t help but notice the absence of that full-bodied joy I used to have. It is tempered by loss. I still feel happy and grateful for the blessings of this most wondrous time of year. And yet, a sense of melancholy creeps in when I look at the ornaments on my tree, memories hanging on each branch of days and people gone by.

The Christmas season is a time of joy and celebration for many, but it can also be a difficult time for those who are dealing with loss. And whether the loss is recent and you are living that year of “firsts” or it has been a number of years, the absence of loved ones from your celebrations is something that we all must learn to navigate.

I continue to learn how to carry my grief with grace and gratitude, but I still stumble. And this time of year... it’s just hard not to notice that my son is not eating the cookie dough, wrestling with his brother or laughing out loud in a way only he could at our corny family jokes.

I remember the first Christmas after Stephen died. It was difficult to breathe, because of the crushing weight of grief. I cried every single day; in my kitchen, my walk-in closet, the bathroom, Target, Wal-Mart, in traffic, at the hockey rink, in church and at the dentist’s office. At the end of the season, I felt like I the last person standing on Survivor. We tried our best to make it special, but I can’t lie. It was brutal.

And that is why I write today. Because if you are there, in that place, I want you to know you are not alone, and it will get better. I promise you. You are not alone.

If you are grieving, be gentle with that broken heart of yours. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to acknowledge it, sit with it, and feel it. You are hurting, and you need to feel and process this loss. You may feel sad, easily overwhelmed, sapped of energy, tearful or angry. Having these feelings during the holiday season can be hard, but know feeling this way is acceptable. It is your truth, and to deny your truth is to delay your healing.

I like to look at it like this. The depth of your pain is reflective of the depth of your love. You wouldn’t deny your love. Don’t deny your pain.

Here some tips that may help you cope:

Handling Traditions ― Be Gentle With Your Broken Heart

Traditions surrounding the holidays are rituals that build and grow over the years. Whether it is a yearly cookie baking night, homemade ornaments, or attending Midnight mass as a family. Our family fabric is woven with tradition that bonds us together.

When someone dies, those traditions can prove to be a trigger point for pain. To get through the holidays, you need to alleviate some of the unnecessary suffering so you can heal.

  • Consider postponing one of your traditions for a year. If the pain is too new, too raw, cut yourself some slack and allow yourself to skip it.

  • Understand that you have control of the kind of holiday season you have this year. Make choices that allow yourself the space and peace you need. Oftentimes, we live a reactionary life. We don’t put safeties in place, and spend all of our time reacting to events that we could have prepared for. Plan for this emotional holiday season, and protect that broken heart of yours.

  • Tell your family how you’re feeling so you don’t feel the additional weight of expectations.

The bottom line? Traditions are not written in stone, and you don’t have to suffer through anything if it’s going to derail you.

The Gift of Remembrance

Finding ways to remember your loved one can be incredibly healing. Some suggestions:

  • Hang a memory stocking: In our year of “firsts” we decided to use Stephen’s stocking as a place to put our memories. You and your family can write down cherished memories and place them in the stocking.

  • Light a candle: Light a candle and remember a life well lived.

  • Write them a letter: Writing a letter can not only be healing, it is a wonderful way to remember your loved one. What would you say to them?

  • Make or buy a memorial ornament: Each year I buy or make an ornament for my boys. It was a tradition I did when he was alive, and I still do it now. I am still his mother and he is still my son. So, even if your loved one is not here, hang a reminder of their beautiful spirit on the tree.

Be Love In Action: Sharing Their Measure of Love

I like to call the acts of kindness that I do in Stephen’s honor as Stephen’s ripple. I share the measure of love I had for him with others. And let’s face it, there are a lot of people who need a little love these days. Here’s some ideas:

  • Make a donation or volunteer to help others in need.

  • Donate altar flowers in memory of your loved one.

  • invite someone who doesn’t have family to spend the holiday with you.

  • If you have been having a hard time parting with your loved one’s clothing, use the holidays as an opportunity to donate some items to a shelter.

  • Think of who else is grieving this loss. Walk with them. Perhaps you could gift some special item that belonged to your loved one, and attach a letter.

Self Care

The biggest and most important piece of advice for navigating grief and the holidays? Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your emotions, what your body is telling you, and respond with love for yourself. It’s not a selfish act.

  • Skip holiday events if you don’t feel up to it. If you do go, set the terms. Drive yourself so you can leave if you feel overwhelmed.

  • Skip or minimize gifts. When you lose someone you love, you realize that the best things in life are not things.

  • Journal your feelings. Meditate. Nap. Pay attention to the cues your body is giving you.

  • Go to a grief group. Talk to others who may be struggling.

  • Let your perfectionism go.

  • Ignore people who want to tell you what you “should” do for the holiday. Do what works for you.

  • Make sure that you consume food and alcohol in moderation.

  • Shop online.

  • Ask for help. There will be people who want to help. Take them up on their offers.

  • Write things down. Grief makes it harder to focus and remember.

  • Seek gratitude. Try to find daily gratitude throughout the holiday season. Write it down, photograph it, share it on facebook. Whatever. Just look for the “Just One Little Things.“

  • Tell your friends what you need. Here a short video to share ideas on how they can help.

Finally, I want you to remember it is okay to be happy – this doesn’t diminish how much you love and miss the person who isn’t there this holiday. Don’t feel guilty for the joy you do find this holiday season.

I know the lights will be bright and your heart may be heavy. But you will get through this. You can get through this. And you are not alone.