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Holidays After the Death of a Loved One

How to survive the holidays after a loss.

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Holidays can be stressful and exhausting, even in the best of times. There are many expectations placed on us to be joyful, excited, busy, and happy to see family and friends that we often feel we fail to meet those expectations. Many people feel disappointed, even let down, after family gatherings. After the death of a loved one, holidays may bring up more sadness, add more stress and lead to more loneliness.

When we lose someone we love, it’s normal to face the holidays with dread and wonder how we’re going to endure them. Many people worry they’ll never enjoy the holidays again, never look forward to them again, feeling they just want to go away to be alone until the season is over. This may be the time when we miss our loved ones the most, when their absence is most glaring, no matter how long ago the death occurred. And it may be the time when we most need support from others.

These feelings are perfectly natural. While it is true the holidays will not be the same, you can make them different in a meaningful and helpful way. Don’t run away from your feelings, instead use them to redefine your holiday, tailoring celebrations to meet your new needs.

Who says holiday traditions have to be the same year after year? Consider doing away with traditions that were meaningless or unpopular and creating new ones in their place. Incorporating your loved one into new traditions or rituals can enhance the way you remember them and ensure they will be a part of holidays to come.

Below are some ideas for incorporating your loved one into the holidays:

  1. Light a candle or say a prayer for them.
  2. Share a story about them and ask everyone to do the same. It can even be a funny story. This is a way to pay tribute to the loss while honoring their place in your lives.
  3. Make your loved one’s favorite dish or recipe, and name it for them (Grandma’s rice pudding). Include it in your menu for the future.
  4. Repeat a tradition that your loved one may have started or liked. For example, if they always gave a certain toast, give that toast in their honor.
  5. Show pictures of them.

Everyone grieves in their own way. There isn’t a roadmap for grief. Allow yourself time and pay attention to your needs. Don’t take on more than feels good, more than what you want to do. If you don’t feel up to hosting, don’t volunteer for it. If you feel like staying at someone’s house for an entire evening will be too much for you, let them know that you will come for part, but not all, of the evening.

Just thinking about your loved one not being at your holiday table may intensify the grief, the sadness and may even make you angry and resentful at them for leaving you. These feelings are natural. Grief manifests itself in a myriad of emotions that can run the gamut. Try to just notice them and then focus on something else.

Be kind and gentle to yourself in some of the following ways:

  1. Allow yourself time to grieve if you want and need to. If you know people who are uncomfortable with your sadness, don’t spend time with them. Surround yourself with those who can support you and are sensitive to your feelings.
  2. If you find yourself smiling, laughing, even enjoying yourself, don’t feel guilty. You are allowed to feel joy, even in grief.
  3. You may find yourself overcome with sadness, the giggles, or both, seemingly out of nowhere. Grief comes when our senses are aroused by external stimuli. It could come from anything—a song, commercial, smell. Again, notice it and try to focus on something else.
  4. Let people know what you need. If you need someone to be with you, ask. If you need to leave a party early, tell the host and leave. Allow others to be there for you, but most of all, you be there for you.
  5. Try to participate in some holiday gatherings, or at least part of them. Getting out of your house will give you a sense of normalcy, a sense of belonging that can be quite comforting.
  6. Volunteer somewhere that’s meaningful to you or was meaningful to your loved one. Helping others is one of the best ways I know to lift spirits.
  7. If you don’t feel like you’re getting enough support, consider enlisting the help of a therapist, even if just to help you get through the holidays.
  8. Don’t take on too much. Minimize your stress as much as possible. There’s a tendency to want to either do nothing or to keep busy all the time. Keeping busy is fine, but not to the point where you feel stressed.
  9. Try not to overindulge in either food or alcohol. They may be temporary fixes, but chances are you’ll feel worse the next day. They will not take away the pain and grief.
  10. Take care of yourself physically. Get enough sleep, eat right, exercise, and follow as much of a normal routine as possible.

Remember, time does heal wounds but we all heal in our own way and time.

I hope you have a meaningful and peaceful holiday season.

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