Unhappy Holidays

Susan Smith, author and editor, shares interviews with grief experts on how to cope with the holidays after a loved one has died. She shares ideas for making the holidays easier to face and provides coping strategies that will help you find hope as you enter the new year.

by Susan Smith

My friend, Danie and I laughed when he said it, in spite of the tears in his eyes. “You should have seen me on vacation, just two weeks after my mom’s funeral, trying to be the happy boy.”

The pain was fresh on his face as he shifted in his chair and fidgeted with his reading glasses, another reminder that he was 53 now, even though he suddenly felt eight.

I knew the laugh was supposed to make me feel better, not him. But it didn’t.

It was early August. His mom had died in early June. And he couldn’t bear to think what November and December were going to feel like.

His first holiday without his mom’s pastries. Without her singing. Without her gifts. Without her.

“Any griever, regardless of how long a loved one has been dead, dreads this time of year when they are expected to put on a happy face," says Jim Burge, a counselor and pastor in Ohio.

“For the person in grief, there are very few songs to sing. As a matter of fact, all that once was beautiful, melodious or inspiring now seems hollow, monotone and draining.”

Well-meaning relatives pressure the person in grief to participate in family traditions, as if nothing has changed. Good-hearted friends encourage the griever to “come over, put your grief to rest for awhile, and have a good time.” As if they could.

In her book, Renewing Your Spirit, Sherry Williams writes that, while the rest of the world addresses cards and plans menus, the bereaved wrestle with their grief. How long will it last? Will the holidays always be this awful? How many stockings do we hang? What do we do with the empty space at the end of the table? What is there to be thankful for this year?

According to Williams, president of New Leaf Resources, holiday grief takes people by surprise.

“Maybe your grief has become a little more routine, a little less intense. All of a sudden, the holidays are here and you feel as emotionally raw as you did a few days after the death.

“At this point, you’re not only grieving your loved one, you’re also grieving a holiday that has changed forever because of your loved one’s death.”

Williams says the intensity of holiday grief can be attributed to its incessant reminders: decorations, parties, music, cards, even gifts.

Throw into the mix the longevity of the season, and you have the potential for unrelenting pain. 

“It’s a good feeling to know we’ve survived one holiday,” says Burge. “But when right on the heels of one comes another and then another, that’s tough. Very tough.”

Williams says there are ways for the bereaved to make the holidays manageable and, on occasion, even enjoyable.

“Managing the holidays doesn’t mean eliminating the pain and grief,” she says. “We know that’s not possible or we already would have done it. Managing the holidays means learning to live with the pain and grief.”

Here are 12 suggestions from Williams and Burge on how to live with the pain and grief this holiday season.

Break out
You can break with family traditions that make you uncomfortable, says Williams. Don’t carve the turkey if you don’t want to do so. Don’t have a sing-along if you don’t want to do so.

“Don’t toss out everything, but do not be afraid to drop some traditions, either. You can always pick them up again another year.”

Relax a little.
If you’re usually responsible for your circle’s holiday festivities, try something new, suggests, Burge. Instead of having everyone at your house, move the party to your brother’s house. Or to a lodge. Let someone else prepare your favorite recipe.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discover that you may need to shift some responsibilities this year. All I’m suggesting is that you not be so rigid.”

Be a Scout.
By that Williams means to be prepared. The holidays are tough. You will cry. Carry tissues, and plenty of them. Tell the people you are with that you probably will cry and that it is okay. Encourage them to cry with you.

Check it twice.
If you’re in grief, then you’re having trouble remembering things. It’s normal. So go ahead and make that list. Then, take a good look at it. What’s most important? What can you let go of?

Let the list remind you but don’t let it enslave you. Williams cautions. It’s supposed to work for you. You’re not supposed to work for it.

Just say no.
If you’re feeling pressured to participate in more than your comfortable with, have the courage to say no to invitations. “You don’t have to explain a ‘no’ any more than you do a ‘yes’ says Burge.

“You don’t have to give a reason for saying no. Be kind but be firm. No.”

Hanging on the green.
Or, more accurately, hang onto the green. You cannot buy your way out of grief, but you may be tempted to try. Don’t try to lessen your pain with more gifts or grander gifts. Williams urges. It just won’t work.

Ask each person in your family or circle of friends to find a trinket that reminds him or her of your loved one. Collect the trinkets in a shadow box and let everyone share the story behind the trinket.

According to Williams, this kind of collective remembering brings healing and is especially enjoyed by children.

Listen up.
You already know what you need to get through the holiday, Williams says. Take the time to listen to yourself. Then, share that with others. Let family and friends know what they can do to help you. Ask for help when you need it.

Give a little.
Williams suggests buying a gift for your loved one and giving it to someone who would not otherwise have a gift.

"You’ll be surprised at how the love you remember will grow with the giving of that gift.”

Give less.
At the same time, Burge encourages you to let go of gift-giving entirely if it is just too difficult this year.

"How easily we forget that every function of a griever comes after much effort. Nothing is easy. Your heart isn’t in it. There’s a blank spot in your life. You need friends and family to understand when you say, ‘I can’t. I simply can’t. It’s too much.’”

That’s a wrap.
You might be tempted to try to forget, but you’ll find hope in recalling favorite moments and funny stories about your loved one.

Ask friends and family to share their recollections with you in the form of photographs, stories, and mementos, Williams says. Some families actually box, wrap and give memories of a loved one to each other.

A memorable gift.
What gifts did your loved on give you? Laugher? Companionship? Joy? Comfort? Stability?

Williams suggests writing the gifts on pieces of paper and keeping them near you. You can put them in a gift box, hang them on a Christmas tree, or tuck them away in a secret place.

As you do what you can to handle the holidays, be careful not to expect too much of yourself, or of the season, Burge counsels.

“You heart will seem to break, but you will get through it. You will make it through another year, and next year will be different, maybe even easier. Don’t expect to magically ‘get over it’ though, because you won’t. But you will have learned how to live with the pain instead of being consumed by it.”

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