Today is November 3rd. Last night the on-air directory of our local cable station was playing all Christmas music. I love music, and I love Christmas music. Hearing Silver Bells made me smile- even if it is ridiculously early!
For many, however, the holiday season is overshadowed by painful memories of the last days and hours of a loved one's life and sweet memories of loved ones who are no longer present. We may be greeted with holiday music in every store we enter and with a "Happy Holidays" from every cashier who waits on us. But if you are grieving the death of a loved one you may be wondering "What's so happy about the holidays now?"
In his book, Don’t Take My Grief Away From Me, Doug Manning compares the pain of grief to a cut finger:
“It is numb before it bleeds
It bleeds before it hurts
It hurts until it begins to heal
It forms a scab and itches until finally the scab falls off and a small scar is left where once there was a wound.”
Manning continues, saying, “Grief is the deepest wound you have ever had. Like a cut finger, it goes through stages and leaves a scar.”
No matter where you are in your grief journey, the holiday season has a way of infecting the wound of grief, causing new pain or ripping away the scab or rubbing and irritating the scar.
It may be tempting to think that skipping the holidays all together is the best way to avoid this pain. Of course, that isn’t really an option and it would not be sound advice in any case.
Coping with the holidays after loss is not about deciding how to eliminate pain from our lives, but rather learning to live with grief instead of being consumed by it. Folks who have walked this journey before have taught me some of the ways they coped with the holiday season, and I would like to share some of those with you this evening:
v Anticipation is often worse than reality. Be realistic. This holiday season will be different from any other because you loved one is no with you. There will be pain but don’t try to block the bad moments. Be ready for them. Lay in a supply of tissues. Let those moments come, be what they are and then let them go. Remember, grief is the price we pay for love. Grief is an expression of our love and longing.
v Plan ahead. Many grieving people have difficulty concentrating and making decisions. So make lists of the things you need to do and the things you want to do. Prioritize everything. Decide what is really most important. You don’t have to do it all. It is okay, and even necessary, to redefine your expectations of yourself and others.
v Be kind and gentle with yourself. Be patient with yourself and others. Figure out what you think you should do. Next, recognize that your physical, emotional and spiritual energy is not at optimum levels. Balance what you think you should do against what you are able to do and then compromise.
v Communicate! Remember that others cannot read your mind. Keep the lines of communication open between yourself, your family and your friends. Tell others what you need, what you want and can do, and what you cannot do.
v “Tradition” can be defined in a very fluid way this year. Some people find comfort in the traditions of the past and will want to maintain those traditions as much as possible. Others will need to change traditions this year as a way of taking care of themselves and acknowledging how very different this holiday season is because of the death of their loved one. Don’t toss out all tradition, but communicate with one another and do what feels best for your family.
v Take care of yourself physically. Eat right and exercise. Get your flu shot. The stress of grief impacts your physical well-being and your immune system. Avoid excesses of alcohol and caffeine. Taking a multi-vitamin probably wouldn’t hurt either.
v Remember the children in your family. Include them in family discussions and remembrance rituals, such as lighting a candle each evening in memory of your loved one or hanging a special ornament on the tree. Let them help with the baking of grandma’s special pecan pie or let an older child take over the tradition of Grandpa’s reading the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. Children learn from you modeling how to cope with loss and change. Ask for help if you need it.*
v Hold on to your purse and charge cards. You can’t spend your grief away, though you might be tempted to try. Similarly, expensive toys and gadgets will not do as much for the children in the family as an honest sharing of grief and of the precious memories of their loved one. When you do choose to shop, shop on “good days.” Avoid crowds and additional stress by shopping on-line or asking others for help.
v Honor your loved one's memory by reaching out to others. Involve the entire family in taking gifts to a nursing home, making a donation in your loved one’s name to a charity, such as a hospice program or other mission name. Buy mittens for a mitten tree or visit the elderly. Not only do you honor your loved one’s memory, but you get some perspective on your own situation and foster an attitude of gratitude for the blessings you still have in your life.
Equal portions of intentionality and careful planning, a cup of communication, some tradition –measured to taste, a gracious dollop of gratitude, a spoonful of service to others and a fine garnish of flexibility are my recipe for what may not be a “happy” holiday season, but a season of peace and gratitude and love.
*For more help for grieving children at the holidays, you may purchase my activity book for kids Handling the Holidays When A Loved One Has Died, available as a PDF download from the TLC Bookstore at www.tlcinst.org