Let’s be real.
The holidays can be a bitch after the death of someone we love.
It’s been 13 years since my little family died and I still wrestle with finding peace during the holiday season. Even now, it’s a tangled mess of emotions – longing, joy, sorrow, gratitude, grief, and loneliness.
The bombardment of shiny, happy families in commercials. Cheesy holiday movies vomiting out endless everything-works-out happy endings. People talking about making memories and wrapping gifts for their kids and plans to visit family.
Sometimes, I can find a bit of holiday cheer – twinkle lights, hot cocoa, and gratitude for all that I do have.
Other times, it’s all I can do not to sob my way through the months of November and December with the constant reminders of the family I lost.
Still, I have learned a few tricks to make the season less dark and gloom and a little more peaceful and light. Perhaps, if you’re struggling with grief and loss this season, some of what I learned will make the holidays even a little bit more bearable.
1. Be selfish
Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be the season of giving and selflessness.
When it comes to surviving the holidays after profound loss, all the “rules” to proper etiquette can be dumped in the trash. (Although, I have to admit, I’m not one to bother much with rules of etiquette regardless!)
Truly, you deserve to be well tended and loved. Especially now.
It may not always be easy to do, but take time for yourself. Give yourself the love and space and pampering you need to face the stuff you can’t avoid – memories, empty chairs, demanding family, etc.
Maybe you steal 15 minutes in the bathroom reading a book. Maybe you treat yourself to a massage. Maybe you take yourself out the the movies. Maybe you order take-out so you have one less thing to do every day.
Or maybe loving yourself looks like crying. Maybe it’s telling a trusted friend just how hard the holidays are this year. Maybe it’s saying no to some or all of the festive holiday gatherings.
Maybe it’s all or none of the above. Your needs are unique.
But take time for you. Be selfish. Ask yourself, what do I need right now in this moment – and then give yourself permission to give it yourself.
2. Find ways to remember and honor
One of the hardest parts about the holidays after a significant loss can be how people seem to forget the one we love and miss so deeply.
We’re struggling to make it through the day with painful reminders of chairs that won’t be filled, memories that won’t be made, and traditions that won’t be fulfilled. Yet it can sometimes seem like everyone else had forgotten or doesn’t care.
The truth is there are many reasons why people may not bring up our deceased loved one. Perhaps they feel like doing so would cause us more pain. Perhaps it makes them uncomfortable to remember. Perhaps they simply don’t understand the importance of acknowledging your loved one this season. Or perhaps they really have simply forgotten as unfathomable as that feels to you.
So, take charge. Bring a candle to light in memory of your precious loved one at the table. Ask that a place be set for them even though their body won’t fill it. Request a moment of silence to remember them. Ask others to share memories with you.
Whatever it is that would help you to bringing your loved one into your holiday, do that. What others think or respond to your actions and requests is their business, not yours. You do what you need to do and let them handle their own feelings about it. They’ll manage, I promise. Just like you are.
3. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel
Grief is powerful. It’s also a bit of a sneaky bastard.
It can sneak up and knock us to our knees when least expected. You are feeling ok, maybe even good, and then out of seeming nowhere – boom! Tears and grief and that terrible burning emptiness around your heart.
Allow it. Let it roll through you without resistance – it’s the only way it will move through.
Breathe some more.
Cry if you need to. Wail and scream if you need to. Give in to fits of slightly hysterical laughter of you need to.
And smile when you can. Laugh when you are able. Feel ok or even good when that is your truth.
Chances are you’ll feel it all before the holidays are done for this year. Give those feeling space to be and they will move like waves, crashing and then ebbing away.
4. Banish the “shoulds”
This goes back to the idea of allowing selfishness again.
There can be a lot of demands and expectations that come with the holidays – sometimes from others and sometimes from ourselves.
Here’s something I’ve learned that has helped immensely. If a demand or expectation comes with an underlying “should,” run like hell. Shoulds are misery making.
“I should go to XYZ because. . .”
“I should give XYZ because. . .”
“I should be XYZ. . .”
“I should feel XYZ. . .”
Or, from others
“You should be . . .”
“You have to do XYZ . . .” (Have to is just another masked should)
“You should feel . . .”
No. No is a perfectly acceptable sentence to say this holiday season.
Truly, there are very, very few things that you absolutely HAVE to do when it comes to the holidays. Most are simply more of those social or family rules of etiquette – and life will not end of those are broken.
Yes, people might raise a fuss or not understand when you say no or you express feelings they don’t like. That’s their business. You can kindly and politely say no and do what you need to do for you.
5. Focus on the love
Love for yourself.
Love for the one you are missing.
Love for the people around you.
Sometimes love isn’t all twinkle lights and shiny packages.
Sometimes love is saying no. Sometimes love is tears and leaving an empty chair. Sometimes love is setting boundaries. Sometimes love is letting other know the truth of how you really feel rather than protecting them.
If ever in doubt about how to handle something this holiday season, ask yourself this:
What feels like love?
What would love do here?
Let that be enough.
Now, this is far from an exhaustive list on how to navigate and survive the holidays without those we love so deeply. There are a million ways to do it because everyone’s way is a little different.
Take what works and leave the rest. In the end, it’s about trusting and loving yourself.
Do what you need to do for you.
And know you are not alone. We’re here.