Those of us at Christus Cabrini Hospice know that the first holiday season after losing a loved one is difficult. All around you, people are singing joy, talking joy and expecting joy while joy is about the last emotion that you feel. Friends may be uncomfortable and avoid you since they don’t know what to say or do. Facing the empty chair at the holiday table is hard, and very painful. It’s especially hard when you simply don’t feel like celebrating and have very little energy. Planning ahead can help you face the day. Try to follow the 3 R’s of holiday grief.
Recognize that this year is different. Don’t force yourself to pretend that this year is going to be the same. Some find it helpful to totally change the way they celebrate. I know one family who took a holiday cruise that first year. Getting out of the house and doing something totally different meant they didn’t have to face the gaping hole in their lives. In a new setting, you won’t be “seeing” your loved one in the old familiar places. Trying to recreate tradition with a person missing only highlights the emptiness. Other families change the way they do dinner or open gifts. One friend created a tradition of service to others to fill the holiday void.
Remember your loved one. You are thinking of this person, so don’t keep silent and pretend you aren’t missing him. Share the stories. Some families create or have a special ornament that represents that person. As you decorate the tree, you can reminisce about him/her and the many things that made him special to the family. This is a great way to pass along those treasured stories to the youngest generations who may not remember Grandma. And as new family members are born or marry into the family, they learn the stories that help form the basis of your family identity. Telling the stories that make you laugh can be very therapeutic. After all, laughter is the best medicine.
Rituals can help you be very intentional about remembering your loved one. You may offer a special toast or share a memory as part of the holiday dinner. You may make and light a candle in memory of someone. You may give a monetary gift to the person’s favorite charity as a remembrance.
Using natural elements such as fire (candles), water, plants, etc. can provide structure for you as you incorporate new rituals. A balloon launch ceremony where each person writes on a balloon to be released can be freeing. You may want to plant a tree or bush in memory of your loved one. The key is to decide what is right for you and your family. Don’t be bound by the expectations of others. If the pervasive joy of the season is just too much for you, it’s ok to skip some stuff. You may not feel like attending a multitude of parties, so don’t. Give yourself permission to be flexible. If your sister insists on you joining her family for Christmas dinner, you may want to ask her if you can decide that morning. And you may choose to go only for dessert to limit the time you spend.
It’s hard to realize it now, but next year will be better. You may never have the same attitude towards the holidays as you did before your bereavement, but the pain lessens as time goes by.
Memories are the way that we keep our loved ones alive in our hearts and lives. Proverbs 10:7 teaches “The memory of the righteous is blessed.”
Please feel free to call us at Christus Cabrini Hospice at (318) 448-6764 if we can help you deal with the pain of a holiday spent in grief.