Enduring Grief Amidst the Holidays

“Grief never ends, but it changes…It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith…it is the price of love.” 

–Author unknown

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Earlier this year, my sister, best friend, and sole sibling, Elle, died of ovarian cancer at age 68, after two grueling years of fighting the good fight. She meant the world to me, and navigating life without her for the past six months has been incredibly challenging and painful.

Now that this joyous holiday season is upon us, I want to be able to pay tribute to Elle’s life while still honoring my own grief. A delicate balancing act, indeed.

Celebrating Not Required

As the holiday season bears down upon those among us who are facing recent loss, we will all face a delicate balancing act. How can we be expected to celebrate and experience joy when a loved one has died? Christmas music, holiday parties, gift giving, cookie baking and festive decorations that used to bring us joy, now just feel like painful reminders of our loss. Holiday cheer seems an affront. Celebrations underscore how isolated we feel with our grief.

“One of the realities of grief and loss,” says author, educator, and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, “is that the rest of the world seems to keep on going forward, while we feel like we have been stopped in our tracks.”

If you feel as if you’ve been stopped in your tracks, are you required to push yourself through all the celebrations with a smile on your face and a “ho, ho, ho?” Fortunately, the answer is “no, no, no.”

If you don’t feel up to celebrating the holidays as you have in the past, give yourself permission to do something else. Light a candle. Stay home. Find yourself in a book or movie. Play inspiring music. Seek a favorite soothing environment. Get a massage. Spend time in nature. Volunteer at a shelter. But don’t feel compelled to try to replicate your former holiday celebrations. 

And if all that feels like too much, cancel the holiday altogether. You’re allowed. If you’re just going through the motions because you feel obligated, take the year off. There’s no right or wrong way to handle the holidays when you’re grief stricken. Take a moment, decide what’s right for you, and do it. And know that in time you will once again find meaning in holiday traditions.

Holiday Survival Suggestions

Set Healthy Boundaries. You certainly can pick and choose how you want to celebrate. If attending a tree lighting ceremony or a cookie swap is likely to bring about too many painful memories, be willing to say “no.” Even though others may try to convince you to participate, you don’t have to give in to family or peer pressure. Just do what you feel you can accommodate, and skip the rest. There is going to be another holiday season next year.

Plan Ahead. If you’re anxious about going to a holiday function, it's helpful to have an escape plan. Either drive yourself to a function or ride with a trusted friend who will take you home whenever you want. Just knowing you are free to leave at any time can help you enjoy the activity much more than you would if you felt there was no way out.

Judge Not. The holidays can bring about a wide range of emotions. You might feel joy, guilt, and sadness all within seconds. Allow yourself to feel those emotions without judging yourself or thinking you should or shouldn’t be happy.

Create New Traditions. Don't be afraid to create new, or modified, traditions this year. You might choose to go to a cozy inn for a holiday meal rather than dine at home. Or create an entirely different menu. Or even leave a chair and a place setting at the dining table for your missing loved one. No need to be bound by convention.

Honor Your Memories. Create a special way to memorialize the person you've lost. Whether you decide to light a candle every night or eat your loved one's favorite food, honoring your loved one can serve as a tangible reminder that although your loved one is gone, the love never dies.

Perform Acts of Kindness. Even when you're in the midst of grief, you still have something to offer the world. Performing a few acts of kindness can be really good for the grieving soul. Donate gifts to families in need, serve meals at a soup kitchen, or volunteer to help people at a nursing home. Or make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of the person who died.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help. Reminding loved ones that you're having a rough time may be enough, but you also may want to reach out for more support. Look for support groups or contact a professional counselor to help you deal with your grief in a healthy manner.

Above all, give yourself time. Grieving is neither a straight line journey nor a finite one. Grief can be life-long. But it will soften and change over time, and you will learn new ways of coping. And  the life of your loved one will always be in your heart, helping you embrace the joys that life still has to offer.