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When Loss Changes the Holidays

A Personal Perspective: I am making a plan and expect to be sad.

Seoyeon Choi/Unsplash
Source: Seoyeon Choi/Unsplash

The holidays.

Yeah, they’re tough.

There’s no trick to getting through them without sadness if you have recently lost a loved one. Even any joy you may find is likely to be tinged with blue.

When I expressed anxiety over the approach of the holidays, some friends suggested I just ignore them. There’s no law that says you have to participate! they insisted.

Were it only that simple. Sure, I can refuse to decorate, to shop, to make any kind of merry. But I would still wake up on Thanksgiving and Christmas morning and know that all that stuff is happening in homes all around me while I try to pretend it’s just another day.

Wouldn’t work. Not for me, anyway.

Besides, I like the holidays. I enjoy buying and making gifts. I enjoy dressing up and getting together with friends. I enjoy eating too much.

No choice but to change

In our 30-plus years together, Tom and I spent holidays with his out-of-state family just a couple of times. (My family relationships were fraught, and most of my family is now gone.) For the most part, our holidays were about us. On Thanksgiving, I would wake to the smell of cooking as early-rising Tom prepped the turkey, which he would smoke outdoors. We would watch the parade and the dog show while cooking a traditional meal, and friends would join us for dinner. We were equally traditional about Christmas Day: Holiday music, sticky buns for breakfast, and opening gifts. We might meet friends for a midday meal or go to a movie, but we most often just spent a sweet day alone together.

With Tom’s death three and a half years ago, my family holiday was wiped out. Now I’m starting from scratch.

As with so much else about rebuilding life after the death of a spouse, reconfiguring the holidays means considering what to keep and what to let go of—and by letting go, I mean deciding what is just too painful to revisit. While some people find comfort in surrounding themselves with all the things they shared with their late spouse, I am comforted by some things but saddened by others. So far, I have not been able to face the cardboard box in my garage, labeled Christmas in Tom’s handwriting, filled with ornaments we collected over the years. Instead, for my first Christmas alone I bought a little pre-decorated tabletop tree and have used that since.

That year and last, for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I rented an Airbnb in Austin, about three hours from home, to celebrate with friends down there, including a widowed friend with whom I could share the struggles. On Christmas Day, she and I had a nice home-cooked brunch together, then took Daisy to a dog park—it is impossible to be sad in a dog park. I joined other friends for dinner Christmas night, and the next day, Daisy and I hiked in a state park before driving home.

There is no more we

These were pleasant enough holidays and I thought I had created new traditions, but this year, for various reasons, the trip is not feasible, and so I find myself floundering. And it is sinking in that I must not only reinvent my holidays again this year, but I may have to reinvent them every year from now on. There is no more we always do this because there is no more we. There is only me, and if I want Thanksgiving and Christmas days to be anything other than lonely weeping, I must take them in hand. If I want traditions, they must be traditions for one.

Happily, I received a couple of invitations for Thanksgiving this year and had a pleasant day, though I miss the leftovers. Maybe I'll revive Thanksgiving here next year, although I'll miss Tom's cooking.

But Christmas Day is a whole other beast. You can’t just crash other people’s Christmas morning.

I treat myself gently

I know that the most important thing in dealing with days like this is to have a plan. It doesn’t have to be cast in stone—you can leave yourself an out if you decide you do need to spend the day weeping—but it’s best not to try to wing it. I’ve already planned a restaurant meal with friends for Christmas Day, but I’m still formulating a plan for that morning, which is bound to be challenging.

And so I weigh and consider. Can I watch the holiday movies Tom and I enjoyed together each year (the 1951 A Christmas Carol and, for irony, The Ref) or do I need entirely new movies? Do I get Pillsbury orange rolls as usual, or would that be too sad? Without gifts to open, how can I treat myself that morning?

The day will most certainly start with a dog walk, as every day does. And then a really good breakfast. Pancakes perhaps? Maybe bacon, a rare indulgence. If it’s cold enough, I’ll build a fire. That’s always cozy. And the dogs (now there are two) are always up for a cuddle, which is a salve for the soul. I picture myself on the couch, covered in dogs, a fire crackling nearby, and a movie (title TBD) on the tube. It will be sweet and it will be sad. But I will give my grief space and honor it while I'm alone so that when I join my friends for a meal later in the day, I will hopefully have moved through the pain to reach some peace and maybe even joy.

For now, there’s an element of damage control. What can I do to make a painful experience somewhat less painful? What can I give myself to look forward to? There undoubtedly will be tears, as there have been often in these run-up weeks. But all I can do is put my head down, put my little tree up, pile gifts for friends under it, and get through it as best I can. The holidays come even for the brokenhearted.

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