What do your holidays look like after your loved one has died?
For my family, we’re discovering that. After losing my mother this spring, we are discovering what the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays look like despite the gaps in our hearts.
Dreading The Holidays
Like for many people, the holidays magnified a sense of grief and loss. I began dreading the holidays months before they arrived. What should we do about Dad so he’s not alone? What do we say on the family Christmas letter (if we even send one)? Do we really have to put up a tree?
Giving Myself Grace
If you’re grieving the loss of a parent during the holidays, give yourself grace. It’s OK to struggle with emotions; and it’s OK to give yourself permission to simplify or change things. Instead of Thanksgiving dinner at noon, our family lazed in pajamas most of the day, ultimately enjoying a lighter Thanksgiving dinner and walk in the evening.
Before December arrived, I spent time thinking about how I wanted the Advent season to look like this year. Did I want to spend this busy month racing to kids’ events? Spending time with close friends? Participating in faith-based events? Service to others? Or sweating the chores not completed? Answering the question of what I wanted my Advent to look like and what steps I could truly take to come closer to achieving that has helped me start this busy month with a greater sense of peace.
I love this advice I had read from a Franciscan Health Palliative Medicine newsletter:
“If you are grieving, you're working with much less physical and emotional energy than most. When a loved one dies you can be overwhelmed by some of the most powerful emotions you will experience in your life, and you do not set the agenda, these emotions do. You are responding to the rhythms of your soul. Death puts things into perspective.”
Finding New Traditions
Many of our holiday traditions of old seem, well, empty without my mother’s presence. When I was a young child, my mother and I would get up on Black Friday – in the days when the stores opened at 7 a.m. – to do our Christmas shopping, then gather my siblings for breakfast and then sneak the presents (poorly) into our home in the hopes my father didn’t begin to guess what was spent.
As Thanksgiving week approached, I realized, I wanted none of that busyness of long lines. Black Friday shopping was all about time with Mom, not the deals I scored.
Instead, this year, I set aside my long-standing family tradition. I took my children to Pack Friday, a meal-packing event for Pack Away Hunger, after breakfast in honor of Mom.
Embracing Moments To Remember
Losing a parent or other loved one creates a hole in holidays and cherished traditions, and it’s healthy to acknowledge your grief during the holidays.
I’m grateful to the friend who suggested saving some lace from my mother’s wedding dress; the poinsettia-shaped flowers have been shaped for ornaments for my dad and siblings to have on our Christmas tree this year.
Other slivers of lace will be used by our children to create ornaments to remember Grandma at Christmas. We know it will be difficult being the first holiday at the grandparents without her, and this is one way for us to keep her as part of our celebrations.
Other Tips For Grieving During The Holidays
The Palliative Medicine team offers additional tips for managing grief during the holidays:
- You may feel like avoiding some of the festivities because they are so out of sync with how you're feeling. If you accept a holiday invitation to someone's home, give yourself some leeway. Be up front with them when you accept the invitation, letting them know that you will try to participate but that you may well excuse yourself at some point. One woman carried a prewritten letter in her pocket explaining why she was leaving in a rush and thanking the host. Even if people never use the letter, it makes many feel more comfortable attending social events because they have a polite "out."
- Allocate a specific time each day to read your mail. Holiday cards from people who don't know about the death may be especially difficult. It might help to have some assistance with this task.
- Don't pretend your grief doesn't exist. If you are not honest, people will think you are doing better than you are. Anticipate awkward moments. Talking about the deceased person is OK. When you talk about your sad feelings, it gives others an opportunity to share their grief as well.
- People around you may not understand what you need, so tell them. If you need more time alone, or assistance with chores you're unable to complete, or an occasional hug, be honest. People can't read your mind, so you'll have to speak it.
- Keep good company. Choose to be around folks you feel safe and comfortable with during this holiday season.
- Make plans that give you the balance between private time and social that feel right. Choose to be with those who are best able to support you. Most of all, try to accept whatever you feel, and let it be OK. It will be OK.
For more information and tips on how to have a healthy holiday season, visit FranciscanHealth.org/HealthyHolidays.
By Robbie Schneider
Social Media Manager