Perspectives on Grieving
Grief and the Holidays - Making a Plan, Checking it Twice
If you are facing your first holiday after an important person in your life has died, it’s not too early to come up with a plan.[i] Watching others who are feeling thankful and are celebrating when we feel overwhelmed, lonely or sad can be very painful. Holidays force us to realize how much our lives have been changed by the loss of our loved one.
The first step in coping with grief at the holidays is to acknowledge that the first holiday season is difficult and then to prepare for it in advance by making specific plans and obtaining the support that you need. Remember too, that sometimes anticipation of a holiday can be more difficult than the day itself.
Here are some ideas for developing a personal plan and ways to cope during the holidays. And remember, you can always change your plan if it’s not working for you. Some people choose to completely avoid the holidays all together by getting out of town or staying in pajamas for the day, but if you have young children or teens or any budget limitations that’s usually not an option.
- Traditions. If life with your person included a lot of holiday traditions, it’s a good idea to talk with your children and other family members and friends about setting realistic expectations. Some people like to stick with current traditions or form new traditions. There is no right or wrong but simply what will work best for you and your family. Keep in mind what you think you will be capable of doing, not capable of doing or interested in doing. Here are some ideas:
- Announce beforehand that someone different will carve the turkey.
- Create a memory box. You could fill it with photos of your person or written memory notes from family members and friends. Young children could include their drawings in the memory box.
- Light a candle in honor of the person
- Set a seat at the table for the missing person if you feel that would be helpful and use it to encourage people to remember and share stories of the person who died
- If you have children let them decorate a special plate for the person – it can be a paper plate or a ceramic plate bought at an arts and crafts store designed for decorating.
- Have a moment of silence during a holiday toast
- Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree.
- Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your person.
- Write a poem about your person and read it during a holiday ritual.
- Play your person’s favorite music or favorite game.
- Plan a meal with their favorite foods.
- If family members object to dropping a treasured tradition, ask them to take care of it this year. If your holiday celebrations usually include hours of standing in the kitchen to create a time-consuming traditional dish, for example, this may be the year to ask someone else to do it.
- Let people know what you need. I needed to talk about my mom the first Thanksgiving without her but noone knew that and purposefully avoided bringing her up as a way to protect me. I realized afterwards that I needed to tell them I want to hear about my mom!
- Grief is exhausting. Be honest with others and with yourself about what you’re physically capable of doing this year. Just getting out of bed in the morning can be a challenge, not to mention cooking an entire meal or shopping for gifts.
- Think about what the holidays mean to you, and focus on those activities. Give yourself permission to simplify your to-do list as your energy level and attention span are compromised when grieving. Think about what could bring you comfort and even joy. If it doesn’t seem like Christmas to you without decorating a tree, for instance, think about ways to keep it from becoming an exhausting chore. Ask for help.
- If others can’t or won’t help, try simplifying the task. Buy a Christmas tree instead of making a trip to cut one down and haul it home, for instance; instead of spending the day cooking, ask others to bring dishes to share, or make dinner reservations. Keep in mind that skipping a tradition this year doesn’t mean you’ll never do it again.
- Don’t feel pressured into forcing a good mood around folks who think you should “be over it by now” or fear your grief will dampen their celebrations. It’s OK to grieve. If people won’t let you grieve, be around people who will.
- It’s okay to enjoy the holidays too. It’s important to give ourselves permission to laugh, share stories, feel lighter and feel joy and not feel guilty. Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one. Allow yourself to feel joy, sadness, anger – allow yourself to grieve. It is important to recognize that every family member has his/her own unique grief experience and may have different needs related to celebrating the holidays. No one way is right or wrong.
- Think of a way to remember the person who died in whatever holiday observances you keep. It could be making a donation to a cause that meant a lot to your loved one, watching his or her favorite movie or just sharing funny stories.
- Find ways to build peace and quiet into your schedule. Reading, listening to music, meditating, writing in a journal and hiking or going for a walk can help you find balance amidst the grief and provide respite and self-care. Be sure to build in time to take care of and nurture yourself.
- Draw comfort from doing for others. Invite a guest who might otherwise be alone for the holidays. Adopt a needy family during the holiday season. Volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen. (Only do any of this if~ you have the energy. Don't make it another "to do" or obligation.
- Take care of your health. Drink enough water, cut back on alcohol, get enough rest and go for walks or do something physical.
- Build a support team to help you get through it. Who are the friends or family you can count on to support you during this time? Think about joining a grief support group, find a therapist to talk to, have a list of friends you can call who are good listeners.
[i] At Imagine we refrain from referring to people who have died as “loved ones” knowing that not all people who die in our lives are necessarily loved, or at the least that some may have very mixed feelings towards the person. We also know even if you feel a sense of relief, that these feelings are complicated and can still make the holidays difficult. Regardless of your relationship to the deceased or your degree of love or affection, it helps to have a plan.