The Holidays Are Here Again

Author: Jill LaMorie

For survivors who have experienced the death of a loved one, the shadow of grief often darkens the weeks from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. The holidays can be a less than welcome time of year for those who have lost a loved one, sometimes one of dreaded anticipation and relieved conclusion. Because they have lost a loved one, grievers find themselves dreading the holidays.

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SUGGESTIONS FOR MANAGING THE SEASON

Do only what feels right. Understand there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays after a loved one has died. Hold a family conference to discuss what would be the best way to celebrate this year. You can do it the same as always, or you can change your traditions. Stay flexible, do not set plans in stone, and let things change or evolve when necessary.

Find peer support. Talk with others who have been through the holidays while grieving. Do not forget that others have been down the grief path during the holidays. Find them and seek out their support, because what they have learned can help you. In his book, A Decembered Grief, author Harold Ivan Smith says all grievers need a safe place to grieve. Sometimes that might not be within a family or within a circle of close friends, because they have not been grievers. He strongly recommends finding other grievers or participating in a bereavement self-help group to find like-minded people. Doing so can lead to holiday “grief relief.” You will discover that you are not alone, find a safe place with others who have been down the same path, and share season-coping skills that work for others.

Nurture yourself. Do what you need to do during the holidays to maintain balance in your life. If you need to rest, then rest. If you need to get away for a few days, then get away. The holidays are often a stressful time, even for those not dealing with death. Respect your body during the holiday by staying focused on taking care of yourself physically. Eat properly, drink water, exercise, and rest as often as you need to.

Get rid of unnecessary stress. Try to find the balance between overextending yourself and completely isolating yourself. Resist the temptation to escape into loneliness by avoiding people, events, and holiday parties. Retreating into loneliness can prevent you from facing the new challenges of life ahead of you. At the same time, don’t overload yourself with too many commitments.

Ignore the critics. Everyone has an opinion and you should expect some criticism, or at least commentary, on how you handle your grief and the decisions you make during the holidays. Find and do what is best for you and your family. You are the only one walking in your shoes; you will know how to fill them. It’s not always easy, but try your best to ignore the critics and their criticism.  

Surround yourself with supportive people. It has been said that grief rewrites your address book. The death of a loved one can bring profound changes to your family and social relationships. It may be a time to determine the best people to spend time with. The holidays are a difficult time, so try to be with supportive, comforting people. Identify family members, friends, and relatives with whom you feel comfortable and who will allow you to be yourself. Spend a lot of time in their presence. Keep a safe distance from those who frustrate you, are toxic, or who just do not understand grief.

To shop or not to shop? That is the question. Hearing the holiday music in a store can be painful to anyone going through a loss during this season. It is your decision whether you feel you are up to or can afford to shop. You can always simplify your gifts and remember it is the effort and thought that counts. Even though the holidays may be different for children, it is always kind to remember that this is a special time of year for them. Online or catalogue shopping as well as gift cards can be very helpful if you cannot face the stores.

What’s in a name? Everything...and don’t forget to say it. Deliberately say the name of the person who died. Sometimes, family and friends will avoid talking about your deceased loved one for fear of further upsetting you. Be the one to bring up his or her name. That way you let others know you want and need to talk about him or her.

Guilt: tread lightly. As you begin to enjoy parts of the holidays, you might also experience guilt because of that enjoyment. Remind yourself that having those moments of pleasure is not a betrayal; it is a natural part of living life. So soften those feeling of guilt. Give yourself permission to encounter joy whenever it comes.  

THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HONOR YOUR LOVED ONE

Give a memorial gift. You can donate to a charity or other organization in memory of your loved one. Another suggestion could be to take the money you would have spent on your loved one and buy a gift to donate to his or her favorite charity. You can also find organizations that sponsor needy families or children.

Give of your time. Volunteering during the holidays is a wonderful way to help others. Nonprofits, civic organizations, and shelters always need more help during the holidays.

Give to children. You can continue to buy and give children a special gift in memory of their loved one.

Do something symbolic. Come up with rituals that symbolize the memory of your loved one. After their son died in military service, one family developed three rituals in his memory. First, they lit a candle at Thanksgiving. After a brief moment of silence and remembrance, each person shared a memory. Second, they purchased a new Christmas ornament and placed it on the tree in his memory. Finally, the family planted a tree on New Year’s Day.

Write a letter to your loved one. This suggestion comes from authors Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert De Vries, in their book, The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions. To help you write that letter, they offer these sentences to jump-start your thinking: When I think of this holiday without you, I feel…The thing I will miss most on this special day without you is…The things that you gave me that were important were…

Cultivate hope. Plant a seed of hope and watch it grow. Hope matters. Even though you have experienced tremendous loss and change in your life, make a list of the positives and review them. “Grief changes us; hopefully it can change you for the better—make you more insightful, more understanding of what life is all about and what is important to you,” state De Vries and Zonnebelt-Smeenge. “Take hold of your life. Believe your life is not over. You still have reasons for being here. Begin to find out what those reasons are.” Cultivate hope and be open to accepting it in your new journey through all the seasons.  

Jill Harrington-LaMorieBy Jill Harrington-LaMorie, DSW, LCSW: Dr. Jill Harrington LaMorie is the surviving spouse of Navy Lieutenant Commander Andrew LaMorie and proud mother of their children, Madeline and Alexander. She served as the TAPS Director of Professional Education for three years, as well as being a peer mentor, group facilitator, and workshop presenter. Jill completed her doctorate in social work at The University of Pennsylvania and currently works as the Senior Field Researcher on the National Military Family Bereavement Study.