19. Surviving the holidays

With good reason, holiday seasons are often among the most difficult of times for people who have experienced the death of someone loved. Holidays are intended to be times of joy, family togetherness, and thankfulness. Yet, after a death, holidays often underscore the absence of the loved one and bring feelings of loss, sadness, and emptiness. While there are no simple guidelines to follow that will make it easier to cope with the grief you may experience during the holiday season, perhaps the following suggestions will make this time more bearable.

1. Realize that the anticipation of pain during the holidays is always worse than the actual day.

2. Be aware and tolerant of your inability to function at optimum levels during the holidays. Feelings may leave you fatigued with low energy. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Break plans and tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks, goals you can achieve.

3. Acknowledge and accept your feelings. Sadness and tears are normal and do not ruin the holiday for you and others. At the same time, don’t feel guilty if you find yourself enjoying some of the festivities -- you are not betraying your loved one. Be easy on yourself and let emotions happen.

4. Decide with your family what is important to make the holidays meaningful and bearable. Re-evaluate priorities and re-examine family traditions. Ask yourself: Do I really enjoy doing this, or am I doing it just to be doing it in the spirit of tradition? Would Christmas be Christmas without it?

5. Don’t be afraid of change. Realize that doing things differently this year does not make it a permanent change. Create new traditions; alter old customs slightly so that they don’t highlight the absence of the loved one.

  • have holiday dinners at different times from past years
  • open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning
  • let children take over decorating and cookie baking
  • prepare different holiday dishes
  • celebrate holidays at another family member's home

6. Plan ahead. Schedules often help in not being caught off-guard which may result in fear, panic, and anxiety. Be flexible in making schedules and plans and allow for changes. Make shopping lists so that on a ‘good’ day you can get a lot done and feel productive. If getting out to shop is a problem right now, do your shopping by mail order or catalog, or ask friends to help you out.

7. Embrace your treasure of memories. Memories bring sadness, but they also bring the warmth of remembrance. They are an important part of your life and should not be ignored. Include your loved one in conversations; reminisce about past holidays you shared together. This is part of the grief process necessary for healing to occur -- it doesn’t stop just because it is a holiday. In fact, the holidays usually intensify it. Give yourself permission to have joy when you can and to have grief when you have the need.

8. Rethink the meaning of the holidays. Explore your faith and belief systems; define your spirituality. If these have been an important part of your life, use them to draw hope and strength.

9. Remember and honor your loved one with a memorial.

  • place a special ornament on your Christmas tree
  • plant a tree in your yard
  • have a memorial candle to be lit during the holiday season
  • make a donation to a favorite charity in memory of your loved one

10. Do something for someone else. Although you may feet deprived because of your loss, reaching out to another can bring you some measure of fulfillment.

  • invite a guest who may be alone
  • give food to a needy family
  • volunteer to fix toys for needy children, drive a route for Meals on Wheels during the holidays
  • visit a nursing home

These holidays will be different, and your reaction to them may be surprising. The important thing to remember is to do what is most comfortable for you and your family. There are no right or wrong answers; no absolute rules. Because everyone handles grief differently, what works for some may not work for others. Just try to love yourself, give yourself permission to experience your feelings, and allow yourself to be embraced by surrounding yourself with caring, compassionate people.