The holidays can be bittersweet after a loss. Getting through those first holidays following the death of a loved one can be brutal. Our first holiday came seven months after our teenage son was killed. At the time I worked with bereaved families at the University of Rochester Medical Center and when asked how to handle the holidays I recommended that they follow their usual routine. Sadly, I got the opportunity to follow my own advice.
The first Christmas was tough. Opening presents, seeing Scott's ornament on the tree and hanging his Christmas stocking were not easy. Like other families we went through the motions "crying all the way." No jingle bells or Ho Ho Ho's that first year. The second year we again went through the motions and the third year we packed up and went to Hawaii. The forth year we began to recover our holiday joy and with the passage of time I am once again looking forward to celebrating with much of the zeal we had prior to Scott's death.
How you celebrate is very individual. People grieve the way they live, and holidays are no exception. If you dreaded the holidays prior to your loss why would you expect to find them joyful as you go through the grieving process? I have always loved the holidays and I am glad we struggled through those first few years even though it was difficult to maintain our "normal" pace of life. If you don't open the holiday decorations the first year you have to open them eventually and bring up the painful memories of your loss.
But, if you haven't celebrated the holidays since your loss you might want to set the intention this year to break out the decorations and the music. As my friend, Scarlett, said after three years of not celebrating at home, "it's time". If you, like Scarlett, have not celebrated the holidays in full measure you might ask yourself, "If not now, then when?"
Holiday Activities and Rituals
After a loss don't be afraid to change or add activities to your holiday routine. It can be easy to get stuck in rituals that you once found enjoyable but no longer bring you pleasure.
We had a very strange thing happen last year. For years we made a ritual of hanging an ornament on our tree that was made by our son when he was a little boy. Scott had carefully written his name on the bulb and then finished it with glitter. Last year my husband and I were relaxing on the sofa after The Compassionate Friends candle lighting when we heard a loud pop. We both jumped up to see what had happened and on the floor, several feet from the tree we found Scott's ornament broken beyond repair.
In a tree filled with ornaments we wondered why that particular ornament would literally jump from the tree. Coincidence? Or a message saying, "Hey, mom and dad time to drop the ritual as you don't need an ornament to remember me. I'm around and wishing you a popping good Christmas!
Holiday Survival Tips
- Try not to overdo - Reach out to others for help. If you have small kids ask a friend or family member to take them shopping and to visit Santa.
- Beware of Anticipation - The days leading up to those special holidays can be worse than the day itself.
- Plan in Advance - Pick the holiday events that you want to attend and consider asking a friend or family member to accompany you or take your children to the holiday party.
- Use Your Hall Pass - Remember when you were in school and you had to have a hall pass to leave the classroom? Well, grieving a loss is the hall pass that gives you the right to come and go according to your needs. Just tell people in advance that you sometimes need a time out, so don't worry just let me have a moment.
- Give People Early Notice - Let families and friends know as early as possible that you will not be doing your usual holiday events. They probably won't be happy but they will get over it.
- Have An Escape Plan - Take your own car to events, use UBER or have another plan to get home if you feel flooded with emotions and need some quiet time.
- Include memories in you celebration
- Decorate a wreath with items that remind you of your loved one
- Display pictures of happy memories, but be sure to display as many pictures of your living family members as you do the deceased. People do count, especially kids.
- Light a candle or give a toast in their name.
- Make your loved one's favorite dish.
- Share positive memories by asking people to relate a funny or happy memory.