City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in a holiday style can be very alienating for those who have recently lost a loved one. "I walk around the streets of New York -- the Santas, the shopping, the bell-ringing -- and I feel like I'm looking at a picture," says Lisa, whose husband died in August.
"The themes over the holiday season are gratitude, light and hope for the year to come," says Vince Corso, bereavement and spiritual care manager at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. "Those three things are rarely in the vocabulary of the bereaved. How you're feeling contrasts so sharply to the culture around you that many people tell me -- and I felt this when my own father died -- they just want to go to bed on November 1 and wake up January 2."
Over many years of working with people in mourning, Vince has developed several strategies for navigating the holidays after the loss of a loved one, especially during the difficult first year of bereavement.
1. Write out your schedule ahead of time. Rather than dreading an amorphous and anxiety-filled week, write a concrete schedule for yourself over the holidays. Include active and down time, time alone and time with others -- and be specific. "Often when bereavement groups reconvene in January," says Vince, "people note that the anticipation was worse than the holiday itself. It helps to see what you're facing."
2. Mark the loved one's presence and absence. After his father died, Vince's children set the Thanksgiving table and included a place for their grandfather, marked with a candle. Other families set a photograph at the table or a bouquet of her favorite flowers. Vince also recommends looking through photographs of the loved one that go back in time. This helps the family celebrate the life and share the loss together.
Joan, whose husband Bill died recently, sent out this year's Christmas card with a family photo -- herself and the couple's two children -- along with a note of gratitude from each, thanking friends and family for support during Bill's final days.
3. Reimagine gift-giving. Lila and her husband always exchanged one special gift over the holidays. Last Christmas, after his death, she shopped for that one special gift -- then donated it to a charity organization.
For young children, activities help to process grief. Over the holidays, make an activity out of gift-giving in honor of the person who died. Bake cookies and deliver them to the hospital that cared for the parent or grandparent. Or plant a tree in the person's favorite spot in the back yard.
Here's an activity for children and adults alike: On a piece of paper, note the lasting gifts the deceased has given you over the years -- gifts in the broadest sense, from a home to learning forgiveness. On the other side, write the gifts you have given him or her. Wrap the paper in some way, in a decorative envelop or a small box, and include it in your holiday gifts, perhaps on or under the tree.
4. Accept at least one invitation. While difficult, it is important to put yourself among people during the holidays. Be selective, however, and do not feel obligated to accept every invitation. Vince suggests listing two or three people who have been most supportive through your grief and making a specific request of them over the holidays -- whether it is to accompany you to church, to join them for Christmas Eve, or to go for a walk in the park New Year's day.
5. Take people up on offers of help. Often, people want to help but are not sure what you need. When Carol lost her husband of sixty years, she wanted one thing over the holidays: to get a ride to his gravesite, since she didn't drive and he was buried outside the city. She decided to accept a general "if there's anything I can do" offer of help from a close neighbor and asked for a ride to the cemetery. "She was more than happy to do it," Carol reported. "The anxiety was my burden." They now make the trip every month.
6. Don't try to do too much. Break holiday tasks such as cooking, shopping and card-writing into smaller chunks, delegate to others, or allow yourself a break from them this year. For siblings coming together after the loss of a parent, be especially sensitive to dividing cooking and chores. After Vince's father died, his mother -- "who could bake for an army" -- no longer wanted the holiday-cookie assignment, so she delegated to other family members.
7. Don't forget to ask the kids. Doug was consumed with anxiety over how he and his teenage children were going to spend the first holiday without their mother, but he didn't want to burden them further. It wasn't until his older son, who had done community service in school, suggested they serve meals in a homeless shelter on Christmas that a family conversation took place. "It was the best way we could have gotten through the day," he said afterwards.
8. Take care of yourself. Grief and the caregiving that often precedes the death of a loved one take a great physical toll. Take care this holiday season to get enough sleep and eat wisely (including alcohol and sugar in moderation). "A body in grief requires a lot more attention," notes Vince. "There's greater susceptibility to illness, greater requirement for nourishment and rest. Especially for someone coming off a caregiving role, give yourself the gift of a doctor's appointment."
9. One holiday season at a time. The pull of tradition is especially strong around the holidays, but give yourself the liberty of taking one year at a time. Whatever you do this does not need to be repeated next year, when you may feel very differently. Leslie has decided to take her two children to Aruba for Christmas, the first after the death of her husband. "They just want to avoid the whole thing," says Vince. "Nothing wrong with that, and nothing that says they have to do it again next year."
10. Love does not end in death. During the holidays and throughout the year, we keep our loved ones alive by the way we live our life, buoyed by their memories, fortified by their values and shepherded by their love.