Grief and the Holidays

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Gerald isn't going to have his holiday party this year. And he is determined not to put up decorations or send out greeting cards. What was meaningful in years past has lost its magic since his father died last July. And this year, "Traditions have no meaning anymore. This does not feel like a time to celebrate; those days are over."

For Gerald, as for millions of grievers throughout the world, the death of a loved calls into question how he will survive the holiday season. "I wish I could sleep through the holidays and wake up in January," he told his best friend. "All those commercials and billboards make me sick to my stomach. They are just reminders of what I don't have anymore."

The sounds, visual cues and even the familiar smells of the holidays all seem to trigger memories Gerald prefers to keep safely tucked away. Social media, television, and movies containing pictures and sound bites of families gathering together, all serve as constant reminders of what he will not have this year. He expresses "an indescribable sadness and a hole in my heart."

For Marilyn, the hustle bustle of the weeks leading up to the end of the year has her head spinning. The sudden death of her husband has turned her and her children's lives upside down. Conversations seem to go nowhere when the kids chime in with "Can we still put up a tree?" "I couldn't bear to see his stocking on the mantle." "I already made his present."

Consequently, Marilyn and her family are going to visit relatives in another city not too far away. They ultimately all agreed not to stay at home with the caveat that if anyone feels extremely uncomfortable at Aunt Elena's house they will come home early.

For the Shapiro family, the holidays will stay the same and include traditions as usual. "I want everything the same as when my daughter was here," insists the matriarch of the family. "Connie would want us to celebrate the way we always have." Her favorite dishes will be served at the dinner table and time-honored customs will be observed.

Each of these families made decisions that feel right for them for this year. The diversity in their choices illustrates the point that there is no one correct way to move through the holidays when you are grieving. And different choices may be made about each holiday or significant date.

Caring friends may also feel confused about extending or accepting invitations and support, wondering "What will they want this year?" "How can I help?" Perhaps the best way to find out is to ask. As awkward as it may be to bring up the topic, it can help to have a conversation in advance and give each person an opportunity to share their thoughts and preferences. Flexibility and thoughtful planning can help create a meaningful holiday.

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.