Susan Robinson

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How to Survive the Holidays While Grieving

Saturday, December 26, 2020 6:35 PM

What images do the holidays conjure up for you? Spending time with loved ones . . . decorating the tree . . . sharing favorite foods . . . listening to carols . . . . These most cherished traditions can become lead weights for those who are grieving the loss of someone dear.

So how do you keep things merry after a loss? First, decide what type of holiday you can manage. Then assess your traditions—which ones are truly meaningful and which do you do just because you always have? Finally, create new traditions that honor your loved one. Along the way, take care of yourself and don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel able to do something (including smile). Read on for more details.

What type of holiday can you manage?

After my son died, I dreaded the hoopla, busyness, and cheer of Christmas. I had no desire to decorate the house, put up a tree, buy gifts, or play Christmas carols—in fact, doing these things felt slightly offensive. My husband and I discussed taking a cruise instead. Going on a trip may be the perfect choice if you can’t bear the festivities. In the end, we decided to stay home. Our other children needed to know that they still mattered and that their Christmas wasn’t canceled because someone died.

Even if you don’t go away, there are smaller ways you can opt out of the usual activities. Tell friends and relatives beforehand that you will limit holiday parties, and visit or entertain visits from only those closest to you. Instead of visiting, go to a movie, eat out, stroll through a museum, take a long walk in nature. A great way to take the focus off of your own pain is to assuage someone else’s. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or deliver toys to needy kids.

Take stock of your activities, events, and visits.

Have a family discussion about how you usually celebrate. Which activities are most important to each family member? Which can you live without? You don’t have to do everything you used to. Will anyone die because you don’t bake cookies or decorate the house? This is a good year to cut down on how many presents each person gets. Shop online.

Activities and events can sap your energy and make you feel even more sad and alone as everyone else celebrates. If you usually attend multiple parties, musical performances, tree lightings, and cookie exchanges, decide which you can skip this year.

Farm out tedious jobs. If friends have offered to help, ask for help cleaning the house, or hire a housecleaner. Find a neighborhood teen to wrap gifts. Buy some of the foods (including cookies) you usually make from scratch. Ask your spouse and kids to sign up for tasks they are willing to help with.

Create new traditions to remember your loved one.

As part of that family discussion, also reassess your traditions and rituals. Keep those that are most meaningful and put the rest on hold this year. Maybe this is the year to let the Elf on the Shelf go back to the North Pole. Nobody will miss your holiday fruitcake. Skip the caroling in the square. Donate to a charity instead of sending holiday cards.

Create a few new traditions to honor and remember the person who is missing. You can add one of their favorite foods to your meal, light a candle at the table, and say a memorial blessing. One of the best ways to remember a loved one and elevate everyone’s mood is to share stories. Buy a tablecloth you can write on with Sharpies, and let everyone pen a memory. Then when you pull out the tablecloth next year, they will enjoy reminiscing. We asked our friends and family to send us stories about Collin, which we put into his stocking. On Christmas morning, we each pulled pages from the story stocking and read them aloud.

Many people find it comforting to place memorial items on their loved one’s graves. Wreaths and greens are traditional, but if you have young children, they might enjoy decorating a tree at the cemetery. We do this every year. You can buy ornaments that reflect the deceased’s personality or make your own and personalize them.

Nothing lifts your spirits quite as much as giving to or doing for someone in need. Donate to a charity in your loved one’s name. Buy a gift she would have liked and donate it.

Take care of yourself.

Grief affects us physically, mentally, and spiritually. While you are knocking yourself out for others, make sure you take care of yourself.

Eat healthy. It’s tempting to graze at holiday buffets, but make sure you’re getting good meals too. Avoid too much alcohol, which is a depressant and only hides the pain for a short while. Exercise or take walks. Meditate. Know and avoid your stressors and grief triggers (this includes people).

When you do participate in activities, don’t feel guilty if you smile or laugh. By the same token, It’s ok to cry, even in front of happy people.

Final (not so) Secret Tip!

Do what feels right to you. Others who care about you will understand. And you can always change things again next year.