Grief during the holidays: How to make it through

10 years ago

The holidays are coming and this is the first set of them without a certain beloved someone in your life. You have mourned the passing of a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend or close relative. Someone who used to be a big part of the holiday season died this year. And now the holidays are looming like the crest of a huge ocean wave, threatening to take you and your holiday memories under with it. What do you do? How do you walk that perilous shoreline of grief while everyone around you seems to have an intact family, with everyone alive and happy? And it gets compounded every time you turn on the TV or open a magazine,and see all those other complete family units in technicolor joy, underlining over and over exactly you what you are missing.

Take a deep breath. You are not alone. And there is a way to get through this. It will not be simple, easy or carefree. But you can get through it. And next year will not be as hard as this year. This year, the first year, is the hardest. This year you may be more acutely aware of the person-shaped hole in your holiday. The edges will start to heal, and then you will find ways to move that healing along a bit more every time an occasion comes up.

When you lose someone whom you love, the pain doesn't ever vanish. It can stop being crippling. And it will, if you let it.

Let me share a bit from my own life. My Mom and I were very close. It was a hard-won closeness, so we appreciated it a great deal. Christmas was HER time of year. It was magical for her, and she spent most of the rest of the year planning for it, and deciding how best to keep the ethnic traditions (Polish) of our family. To see her at Christmas was to see pure joy in action. So, the first Christmas without her was awful. It hurt like hell. But I started to learn how to deal with loss and holidays. Here are some ideas from my own experience and the experience of friends. Please, please, chime in with your own, as we can share in order to help folks here.

Here are some hints (in no particular order) about getting through the holidays when grief may be all you see.

1. Do not keep silent.
Find someone or some group with whom you can let down your guard and express your grief. Find those people who will let you cry your eyes out, or who will let you get so angry that you are without that person you loved. Express what is inside. Don't feel that you have to be stoic 24/7.

2. Ask for help.
When my Mom died, I sat down with my father and said "How on earth are we going to get through this Christmas?" And we talked. We made some decisions. We kept some things the same, and changed others. We avoided some things that would hurt. We started some new traditions. Ask your family, your spouse, your children, your pastor for ideas. Involve the family. Help your children tell you what is in their hearts, if they have lost someone.

3. Do what brings genuine comfort, even if it seems odd.
....... a. My mother 's love for Christmas had my father and I bring a decorated tiny Christmas tree to her grave. We set it up with stones so it would not blow down. Mom loved Christmas so much that she would have been delighted that we did that.
....... b. Our tradition is to set an extra chair on Christmas Eve for "the uninvited guest". (Legend has it that Christ walks the streets in the guise of a stranger that night, so if he comes to your door, he should see a place already set.) . We used to always set that up next to Mom, joking that she would be the most enthusiastic companion. The year she passed away, we set up two empty chairs -- one for the guest, one for her. Other family members were glad, and said they had dreaded the thought of her special chair not being there.
....... c. We could not endure doing a whole fancy tree with Mom's favorite ornaments. Instead we got a small one and decorated it with lights and silk flowers, as she loved flowers so much. It was easier to take down, and it did not break our hearts with too much memory.

4. Keep the traditions that have the most meaning for you.
Your loved one would not want you to tear apart your life. It is OK to have a Christmas, a Thanksgiving, a Hanukkah, a Kwanzaa, a New Year that resembles all the ones that you had before. Life and traditions go on.

5. Feel free to start new traditions.
That first Thanksgiving, my father and I agreed to share only fun memories of Mom as part of those things we were most thankful for. There we were, actually laughing. It was a wonderful and grace-filled relief. One friend who lost his wife this year is planning to sit down with his children and decide what special charity they are going to support in her name this year --and they have agreed to support it with money and with volunteer time. They will do this every year. One mother who lost her husband prematurely shares the story of her sons' births with them on Christmas Eve -- not the intimate details, just the story of that day and the joy that she and her husband had. She calls it "my boys' nativity stories". It is a way to bring their father into each holiday.

6. Talk about the absent person
It is fine to share good memories -- or to say "Gee, Dad would have loved this." They may have died, but your love and their love stay around forever.

7. Brace yourself for the wave effect.
You'll be cooking a turkey, doing fine, congratulating yourself about how well you are getting through this when a whiff of pumpkin pie reminds you of Dad, or Grandma, or cousin Albert and whammo -- you are a mass of tears. That's OK. In fact, that is what happens. It is a grief-wave. It will come without warning, and then it will go. It's no sign of how well or badly you are doing. It just happens to everyone. Breath through it -- pray through it -- meditate through it - cry through it. Know it will pass.

8. Know that this is the hardest one.
The first year is like a series of first-times. The first Christmas without. The first Passover without. The first birthday without. The first anniversary without . And on and on. Just live through each one, knowing some will be easier than others. Then plan for the next round, knowing what you know about grief from that first year. Then it will be easier. My Mom died 12 years ago. I will still shed some tears this Christmas, probably when I play her favorite Polish Christmas Carol, Lulajże Jezuniu, but they will be tinged with the sweetness of blessed memory, not with the heart of deepest grief.

9. Help those around you who are also at a loss.
It is a big relief to not be alone in your grief. Saying "what will WE do?" is so much easier than "what will *I* do?" Look around. Lift each other up.

10. If you are a person of faith, lean on your faith
Whether your faith is traditional or not, somewhere it contains something for you to lean on -- if only the belief that you are not alone. For me, it was important to focus on the fact as expressed in my faith, that my Mother may be gone from this plane, but that she has gone on to life beyond it, and that someday we would be together again. It did not make my pain go away, but it reminded me that what we say is "dead" is not lost forever.

11. If you believe in Love, lean on that, too
The most important thing between you and your loved one was -- love. And no one can ever take that from you. All the love that was expressed by the two of you is yours to keep forever. Love is stronger than death. Compared to the power of love, death is trivial.

12. Write your way through it.
Whether you blog it or journal it or type it into filed word docs, get what is inside, outside. This will give you the ability to look back, a few months from now, and see how far you have come. You may even want to write a journal-letter to your departed loved one, telling them in words how much the holidays hurt without them.

Whatever else you do, here is the most important thing -- FORGIVE YOURSELF FOR ANYTHING YOU JUST CANNOT DO. Cut yourself some slack. This year's holiday does not have to be and will not be perfect. There are still aftershocks to the earthquake of grief.

Grief feels so individual, and in many ways it is. But in lots of ways, it is not. Lift your eyes up a moment, and you will see many others who want to help, who have also been through loss. Know that you are in their hearts. If they ask how they can help, tell them. And accept the help when they deliver. None of us can get through life's saddest times alone.

Please, if you have experienced that grief during the holiday feeling -- how did you best cope with it?

So, in that spirit, this year, on my Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve tables, I promise to light a special candle for all you folks in reading this who are figuring out how to deal with loss. And I will say a prayer from my heart that consolation and peace come to comfort you.

--Mata H

Babbadivy wisely warns against putting your lost loved one on too high pedestal or in too low a ditch, and wisely adds:

But back to the holidays- remember it’s okay to reminisce. Think of the funny times, the happy times, and even the sad times. It’s totally normal for those first holidays without your loved one to be a little sad, a little deflated- even a little angry. Pull together with your family, even if there are problems with things like the division of that person’s property. After a loss, the family you have is more important than ever.

Claudia talks about the stages of grief and describes how she will spend her holiday.

Elaine talks about the loss of a spouse, including through divorce, and says this about the holidays:

During holidays and special times, try not to totally isolate yourself, thereby adding to moments of stress or alienation. Allow family and friends to help you get through difficult times, even if it’s something as simple as picking up your children from school or helping you shop for groceries. You can still be alone with your thoughts to sort through your grief, but it doesn’t hurt to allow others to help absorb some of the heartache during this time of year.

Mata H, CE for Religion and Spirituality, blogs at

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