Originally published in Bakersfield Life, November 2015
As an only child, I treasured our holiday gatherings, filled with my large and animated extended family. As an adult, I appreciate those get-togethers even more. But now, there’s an empty chair at our holiday table. Even while part of me is looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, I already know I’ll be missing someone special as we enter the second holiday season without my mom.
The holidays often bring added stress and heartache for those who are grieving. Whether it’s the passing of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or maybe even the “anticipatory grief” of knowing a loved one’s days are short, the coming months can be challenging.
I’ve come across many suggestions for coping with grief and loss, especially during the holidays. Here are four that have helped me the most:
Be kind to yourself.
Marriage and Family Therapist Rosie Witt often counsels people grappling with grief and she advises clients, first and foremost, to be kind to themselves. “Take time for yourself,” she says. “When you are tired, rest. When the calendar is filled with parties and activities, choose what you feel up to doing and forgo the rest.”
If you normally prepare the entire holiday meal on your own, ask for help; or ask someone else to host this time. Family and friends will likely be happy to relieve some of your stress.
Rethink your traditions.
“Business as usual” may not be possible during a time of grieving. After 50 years of Christmas Eves at my parents’ house, the family party was moved to my aunt’s house. The change was good for everyone! Mom’s grieving sister was kept busy and distracted by the new responsibility, and the rest of us (including my dad) appreciated the new setting. Some traditions, on the other hand, may be the best way to honor your loved one. Whether it’s decorating for Thanksgiving, or sending out Christmas cards, the decision is yours. Just remember to refer back to suggestion No. 1 on a regular basis and be kind to yourself!
Talk about it.
Now is not the time to be stoic and keep your feelings inside. Spend time with people who understand, and consider finding a counselor who can help sort through your feelings. Not everyone, even some of your closest friends, will be equipped to give you the empathy and wisdom you need right now; seek out those who can do it and try to be patient with those who cannot.
Give yourself permission to smile and even feel a moment of joy.
Even in our darkest times, there are moments that bring a smile to our face. A baby’s laugh, singing with family, or a holiday memory of your lost loved one can be powerful enough to bring a moment of happiness. Let yourself smile and know that it won’t feel this way forever. The pain will always be there, in some form, but it will soften over time.
Gearing up for the holidays during a time of mourning is difficult; there’s no way around it. Take heart in knowing the build-up is often tougher than the holiday itself. Just do your best and take one day at a time.