Whether it is a death, a relationship issue, the loss of a job, the first year being separated by distance from a loved one, a serious illness that might cause loss of mobility or other issues or any significant and deeply sad or concerning life event, it can be a bit difficult to find happiness while the rest of the world seems holly jolly.
A number of years ago on my old blog, "Chopsticks and String," I shared some tips on coping with the holidays during a period of loss. Those hints were built over time from years of volunteering at a children's grief center, reading countless articles and books during my own journey and talking with any number of friends who have traveled the road you may be traveling now.
This post includes some of those ideas. I encourage you to please leave anything you may have found helpful in the past in the comment section.
Be Gentle With Yourself
Every year you did the holiday party. If it feels good to do it, don't hesitate. But remember, no one expects you to be the life of the party -- or the host. Someone else might like a turn!
Depending on how recent the loss or how you might connect that loss to the holiday season, you may choose to sit a few things out -- or tone them down. And maybe not. But the point is, this season can bring up all sorts of things. Good memories. Loads of baggage. If it's the first year you are not with your loved one, perhaps the first when your children are celebrating with their "other" family, it can be tough. Find the way that works best for you, whether it is being with a few dear friends, traveling to a new destination or volunteering at a shelter. You can make your new holiday.
Don't forget to rest. You don't have to be the Energizer bunny. Store up your energy but take advantage of times you can let go and just rest.
Do One New Thing
Long ago, a friend once told me, I'm dreading the traditional this year. The new experiences I'm looking forward to, but the old ones -- I don't know."
So, give yourself a break. Pick the traditions that you want to hold onto this year (or always). But try something different too -- maybe it's a new cookie recipe, a different arrangement for decorations, making a gift, doing a craft, inviting a guest to dinner who has never been part of your celebration before. (Even if you're happy as a clam, why not give it a go?!)
You might discover the best and most unexpected holiday concert you've ever seen or walk through a winter wonderland. Whether it's the Nutcracker you've never seen or that first walk through the zoo, think outside of the box. It might become your new tradition!
Consider the Others
It's sometimes hard to think outside of one's own grief or loss. But doing so can bring great joy to yourself and others. Perhaps you might volunteer through an organized activity like a food pantry or ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. Maybe it means adopting a family in need. But it might be something as simple as helping an elderly neighbor wrap gifts, drop things at the post office or delivering cookies to the neighbors you've never met. You'll make that person's day and you'll feel pretty terrific yourself!
Or, practice "Random Acts of Christmas" -- chipping in $5 at the grocery cashier to go toward the order of the old man behind me, anonymously of course. Priming the meter or parking attendant with another dollar's worth for the next user. An anonymous gift to someone who needs a lift. Once you start, it is really hard to stop.
Get Out of Town
Consider a road trip. If being home is too hard, venture to a new place -- Toronto? Las Vegas (below)? New York? Or spend the holiday at the home of friends or other relatives.
It doesn't have to be a permanent tradition, but it might make the first year under new circumstances a little easier.
Honor the Memories
There can bea lot of long shadows at the holidays. While it may be difficult to find anything to smile about with certain losses (certainly loss of a job brings with it financial concerns and the memories of a divorce or separation might not be good ones), it can help to try.
You can remember a person who died in any one of a number of ways -- sharing memories at the table; lighting a candle in that person's memory; setting a place at the table; looking at photos; visiting the cemetery. If you are crafty, consider taking a garment they loved -- a favorite shirt or bathrobe -- and making ornaments for your tree and those of family members or close friends. A star ornament from a treasured garment will be a lasting reminder each year on your tree.
I have a "Dad" tree and a "Mom" tree. These very different trees reflect things they loved or collected. It's one way I can do something fun and cheery -- have a pretty tree -- yet remember their delightful and happy spirits.
Remember the Children
If you have young people in your family, they may be having difficulty in handling their feelings about a holiday season without mom or dad or a beloved grandparent or even a pet. They may have some behavior issues or simply be sad and tearful.
Try some of these activities with them:
- Let children design a paper place mat about their perfect Christmas (and don't be surprised if they draw the missing person)
- Let them create a special ornament for the tree in honor of the person who died.
- Let them burn out their stress with a marshmallow fight! A few big bags of super-puffed marshmallows can fly across the room releasing some of that energy!
- Encourage older ones to write a letter to the person who died, sharing their feelings.
I also refer you to this link on the Ele's Place site about holiday tips for grieving children. Ele's Place is a children's grief center that started here in Lansing, MI and now has other locations in the state. Their site has many excellent ideas.
Grief doesn't disappear on cue and holidays can kick your emotions in gear. Trust me on this -- I still have tricky moments at the holidays near my dad's death anniversary or when I hear certain songs. (If you play "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"-- even the Muppet version -- I will lose it.)
But the fact is, this is a part of life now. A new job may come along, a new relationship might bring joy. But a death is a death, whether we are mourning what was or what was not and now never would be. Believe that it can and will change over time, that healing isn't always fast and one may well always feel the loss. In good time it will heal. Getting through the now is what matters first.
And accept hugs.
Just be gentle. Because you are a survivor. And you will survive.
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