So, really, how do we celebrate without the one we love? At its best and worst this is an affective time of the year – the signs, symbols, and keepsakes from the past that remind us of our loved one cause our emotions to surge with pain, sorrow, anger, fear, regret, and a host of other feelings that don’t do much to lift us up. Grief often collides with the ongoing celebrations of life.
Over the years since my husband’s death I’ve learned some things – mostly the hard way - about grief and the holidays. There’s nothing like personal experience to teach us some of life’s most important lessons. And although there are no simple formulas or quick fixes to get us through the season, there are a few things we can do to ease the personal pain of our grief at the holidays.
Put the day in perspective. If you think about it, the actual holiday is just one day. Under most circumstances, all of us can survive just about anything for twenty-four hours. What distorts our perspective is that, for weeks on end, we feel pressured by the commercial, social, and spiritual suggestions that demand we have some larger-than-life experience of the holidays. Whether or not we like to admit it, most of us are easily inflamed by the secular world, especially when we grieve. Although the season may seem interminable, the holiday itself is just one day. Try to put the day in perspective.
Know your limits. You’re the only person in charge of you. Be intentional about how much or how little you want to do. If you sense a gathering will be too difficult, don’t go. It’s easy to be swept along by the good intentions of family and friends. Their strategy for helping you through the holidays may be to distract you from your pain. Know your limits and try not to exceed them. It’s okay to say no.
Take care of yourself.
- Get enough rest.
- Consider having a “good enough” holiday, rather than a perfect holiday.
- Don’t set expectations too high for yourself or for the day. If you think about it, there were probably some disappointing holiday seasons before the death of your loved one.
- Think about how to make it through just this holiday.
- Live one day at a time.
- Stay in the moment.
- Guard your heart. The holidays are the most stressful time of the year. Don’t dismiss the real physical stress caused by grief. If you have any heart-related symptoms or obvious signs of stress, seek immediate treatment.
- Take time for yourself on holidays - time to reflect, time to remember, time to forget.
- Let others know they’re not responsible for making you happy. Even if your loved one would “want you to be happy,” you don’t have to be happy. Being happy, however, is not a betrayal of your loved one. Eventually, we do enjoy the holidays again.
Decide about traditions. Because holidays usually center on tradition, when a loved one dies you may decide to continue on with family traditions or create new ones that honor his or her memory. What you do this year doesn’t have to become a permanent tradition. Grief may change the way you approach the holidays; you may decide on a new format for the future.
Be realistic about family. Though often we think of the holidays as “family together,” most of us know that gatherings may be difficult. The family may want everything “back to normal.” Often we’re expected to be appropriately cheerful and bright at the holidays even if that’s not how we’re feeling. Your family may want you to be “over it”. It may seem like they’re trying to forget what you most want to remember. Acting as if no one died denies grief at the very moment when the comfort of family is most needed. Decide together about the holidays.
Remember, there's no right or wrong way to experience the holidays, the season, or the actual twenty-four-hour day.
- Realize that it’s not going to be easy.
- Do the things that are special or important to you.
- Do the best that you can.
If daily life with our loved one was a continuous festival of love and joy, we grieve the loss of celebration in our life. God knows our heart’s deep longing as we grieve at the holidays.
You remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.
1 Corinthians 11:2 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the faith of your traditions. Amen.