Getting Through the Holidays When You've Lost Someone
My grandma and I shared a lot of things in common. We were both voracious readers, we both loved “Murder, She Wrote” (she may have instilled that love in me), and we were both December babies. The celebratory mood and general sense of joy enveloping the holiday season were made even grander by the excitement of our birthdays; our own personal celebrations. So when she died on a January day, just one month after my 12th birthday and her 66th, I worried that the holiday season was forever changed, marred by her absence and the impenetrable void she’d left.
Despite what the lyrics may say, the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone. For many, the holidays represent time spent away from work and with our family, participating in long-held traditions and making new memories as each celebration marks the milestone of another year passed by, together. But for others, the holidays only magnify their grief. How is it that the world is still spinning—that people are still going to work and posting witty Facebook statuses and hanging Christmas garlands—when one of the most important people in your life is gone? For them, the “most wonderful time of the year” can actually feel incredibly painful and lonely.
Despite what the lyrics may say, the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone.
“How can you celebrate togetherness when there is none?” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler ask in their book, On Grief & Grieving. “When you have lost someone special, your world loses its celebratory qualities. Holidays only magnify the loss. The sadness feels sadder and the loneliness goes deeper. The need for support may be the greatest during the holidays.”
Melissa McReynolds, an reader of The Everygirl, lost her father very recently and reached out to let us know that she was struggling with how to navigate the upcoming holiday season in his absence.
“I haven’t quite yet been able to strike a balance of it all,” Melissa said. “It’s such a different piece of life, so definite and so unlike anything else I’ve had to experience and process emotionally, mentally, physically even.”
In the foreword to Kübler-Ross and Kessler’s book, Maria Shriver defines grief as: “...the opening up to the exquisite pain of absence. It’s the moment when you stop trying to move on or change how much it hurts, and just let it out.” But, understandably, many of us—most of us—are uncomfortable with that. We don’t know how to access our grief or process it or continue moving forward, day by day, in spite of it.
“There is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives,” Kübler-Ross and Kessler add.
It isn’t easy to grieve—there is no timeline and there is no roadmap. And it can be especially difficult to navigate on the most special occasions: your deceased loved one’s birthday or an anniversary or the intensely family-focused winter holidays. But while there may not be a step-by-step, personalized plan for grieving, there are a few ways you can navigate the uncertain terrain of a holiday season spent without your loved one:
Give yourself permission to be sad.
It can be difficult to move through a regular season of life that feels antithetical to the pain and sorrow that accompanies grief. Many try to avoid their feelings of sadness or “turn it off” in public, so as not to dampen anyone else’s holiday spirit.
There is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
But it’s important not to ignore the powerful feelings—both good and bad—that you experience as you move through a “joy-filled” season, while you’re overcome with sadness. If you want to be at every holiday party, to enjoy the distraction and soak up some merriment for awhile, you can do that. But if you want to forego the celebrations, that’s fine too. As long as you don’t avoid your own feelings of grief, however crushing they may be. By allowing yourself to be sad and angry and uncertain, you avoid bottling up those feelings—which won’t go away simply by ignoring them—and processing your loss sooner rather than later.
In a recent PBS blog post, grief and bereavement expert, Dr. Camille Wortman references comforting words from Pamela Blair and Brook Noel’s book, I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: “Wherever you are in the grief process… We know it’s hard—and we also know it gets less hard. The next time a special occasion, anniversary or holiday comes around you will feel a little more in control, a little less pained...”
But only if you first allow yourself to actually identify your grief process and work through it; to feel the pain and allow yourself to eventually come out the other side of it.
Decide how you want to celebrate, if you want to celebrate at all.
“It seems like it will be important to keep some of the traditions that remind us of dad, but build some new ones that we can look forward to in a different way,” Melissa shared.
Kübler-Ross and Kessler agree. They recommend reviewing your holiday traditions and deciding what works best for you and your family: perhaps you will continue to participate in the same family traditions, while honoring the memory of the loved one you lost, or maybe you’ll choose to forego the celebrations for a season or two and come back to them when it feels right, with new traditions and memories to make. Whatever you choose, it’s important that you move through the holidays in the way that feels most comfortable to you, not in a way that’s expected of you.
“Don’t allow the holidays to just happen,” says Dr. Wortman. “Also, try to use a Plan A/Plan B approach to the holidays. Plan A might involve spending Christmas or Hanukkah with relatives; Plan B might mean having a simple dinner and watching a movie at home. Having a Plan B can be comforting even if you don’t use it.”
Let others know how you’d like to move through the season.
The other people in your life, though well-intentioned, may have no idea how to help you move through the holiday season—unless you tell them. Be very upfront and clear about how you want to celebrate the holidays and honor the memory of your loved one, if at all. If you want to talk about what you’re going through, tell them. If you want to avoid the many festivities and decorative merriment—even if only for a year—let them know.
Melissa looks forward to sharing stories about her dad during the holidays, while creating new memories too. “It is going to be [about] getting through it and seeing that we have each other and that it will be alright, not the same, but that we can do it and live life like dad showed us. That and playing Jimmy Buffett’s Christmas Island album on repeat. Dad loved that album so much.”
“Holidays are clearly some of the roughest terrain we navigate after a loss. The ways we handle them are as individual as we are,” said Kübler-Ross and Kessler. “Whatever your experience, just remember that sadness is allowed, because death, as they say, doesn’t take a holiday.” Most people will understand and respect your grief process; you just have to let them know what that process is.
We’ve all experienced loss, in one form or another, so most of us have experienced grief. But every single experience is unique. There is no “one size fits all” solution to moving through the intense depths and aches of mourning—and finding the “solution” is not as important as the process. Of actually acknowledging and feeling and allowing yourself to grieve in the first place.
In her latest book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott gets real: “Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks, it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.” She continues later: “...what I’ve discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.”
It can feel overwhelming to realize that the sadness, the gaping hole that is left behind by the loss of a loved one, is something that will never truly go away. I miss my grandma every single day, but I can remember her—the smell of her apartment, the smile wrinkles in her cheeks, our private “December baby” celebrations—now with fondness and happiness for the time we spent together. While the grief doesn’t go away, it will fade and every passing day, every passing holiday, every passing year will bring you a little bit closer to celebrating memories of your loved one, the holiday season, and the beauty of life once again.