Handling the Holidays

Author: Darcie Sims

The holidays are coming and I’m not ready. Everything seems to sparkle and there is always so much to do! It is a festive time, filled with joyous occasions and family gatherings. But when your family circle has been broken by death, holidays and special days may only serve to remind you of the empty space at the table, the hole in your heart.

holiday table

I am not sure if I will ever again be ready for the holidays. The world has simply gone mad and I, like you, have been caught in a horrible nightmare that seems as if it will never end. My own world twisted apart a long time ago, but you may be just starting on this path through the valley of despair. You may still be “frozen” in disbelief, and even though days and weeks have passed, you may still be numb and in shock.

Although your world may seem as though it has stopped, the calendar says it’s holiday time, and you may be wondering what to do with the empty chair at the table and what there is to be thankful for this year. The holiday season is a time when the past and the present collide. We try to recapture what we once had or blot out bad memories. We try to ignore the empty chair.

As we set the dishes and count the silverware, we are acutely aware of the empty places at the family table. We try to find the holiday spirit, but when the family circle has been broken by death the only things that sparkle this season may be tears. We hold our breath and hope the holidays go quickly. We doubt we can endure too long. We sit in the dark, because we think we have lost the light.

Instead of bringing warmth, love, and excitement, the holiday season can be a painful reminder of the terrible hole in the family fabric. But there are some things you can do to help ease the footprints that grief leaves on your soul. It is with a heavy heart and an outstretched helping hand that I offer these tips for getting through the upcoming holidays.

Give yourself the gift of individuality this holiday season.

Claim your grief, become aware of it, acknowledge it, and create an action plan to cope with it. Be cautious in what you try, however. Use your common sense. You did not lose that, although it may seem that way (at least to others). You know what you need, so give yourself permission to grieve your way this holiday season. Do whatever works for you. Just be careful of drugs, alcohol, and high places. None of those work effectively and can lead to additional problems that you don’t need right now (or ever).

Be tired. Be hurt. Be grieving.

Your tears are a symbol of the love you shared. Let them flow in whatever way you need as you find your way through the pain and into the light of memories and love. Grief is an individual journey. No one can walk it for us. Each footprint must be our own.

Be patient with yourself.

Know that hardly anyone is as happy as you think they might be. We all have our hurts to bear. Do what you can this season and let it be enough.

Be realistic.

It will hurt, but don't try to block bad moments. Be ready for them. Lay in a supply of tissues. (A roll of toilet paper is even more efficient!) Let those hurting moments come, deal with them, and let them go.

Be kind and gentle with yourself.

Figure out what you should do, balance it with what you are capable of doing, and then compromise. Forgive yourself for living.

Plan ahead.

Grieving people often experience a lack of concentration. Make lists. Prioritize everything. Decide what is really important to you.

Listen to yourself.

As you become aware of your needs, tell family members and friends. Ask for help when you need it.

Take care of yourself physically.

Eat right. Exercise—or at least watch someone else. Gift wrap some broccoli. If nothing else, jog your memory! 

Change something.

Everything has already changed so don't be afraid to change some traditions. But don't toss out everything this year. Keep some traditions. You choose which ones. Leave the word “ought” out of this holiday season.

Hold onto your wallet and charge cards.

You can't buy away grief, but you might be tempted to try.

Don’t deny yourself the gift of healing tears.

Understand that heartaches will be unpacked as you sift through the decorations, but so, too, are the warm loving memories of each piece.

Share your holidays with someone, anyone!

Ride the ferry, visit a soup kitchen or nursing home, spend an evening at the bus station. There are lots of lonely people who could use your love and caring.

Work at lifting depression.

Take responsibility for yourself. We cannot wait for someone else to wrap up some joy and give it to us. We have to do that for ourselves. Think of things you enjoy and give yourself a treat. (Cookies can be therapeutic!) 

Hang the stockings.

Or place a wreath on the grave. Do whatever feels right for you and your family.

Light a special candle.

Not in memory of a death, but in celebration of a life and a love shared.

Learn to look for joy in the moment.

Get a pair of rose-colored glasses and change the way you look at things. Joy happens when we look for it.

Buy a gift for yourself.

Wrap it, but don’t hide it! Just when you think you are going off the deep end, open it up and enjoy.

Buy a gift for your loved one.

Wrap it up and give it away to someone who might not otherwise have a gift. Pass on the love you shared together, and it will never die.

Live through the hurt.

Live through the hurt so that joy can return to warm your heart. Our loved ones have died. We did not lose them or the love we share. Our loved ones are still, and always will be, a part of us. We cannot lose their love. Even though death comes, love never goes away. 

Find the gifts of your loved one’s life.

Think of all the gifts that your loved one gave to you: joy, safety, laughter, companionship, compassion. List these gifts on strips of paper and keep them somewhere close to you. Put them in a gift box or place them in a stocking. Decorate the tree with them or simply keep them in a memory book or in a secret place. Wherever you place them, know that these small strips of paper hold treasures far beyond our capacity to understand. They hold tangible evidence that someone lived. It is a reminder that we did exchange gifts and that we still have those gifts, even if our loved one has died.

May you find the gifts of joy and the memory of love given and received. These are the treasures of your life. May you rediscover them again and again. Whatever holidays these are for you, may they be manageable, and may love be what you remember the most. 

Darcie SimsBy Darcie D. Sims, PhD, CHT, CT, GMS: Dr. Darcie Sims is a bereaved parent and child, nationally certified thanatologist, certified pastoral bereavement specialist, and licensed psychotherapist and hypnotherapist. She is the president and cofounder of Grief, Inc., a grief consulting business, and the Director of the American Grief Academy in Seattle, Washington. Darcie is an internationally recognized speaker and writer, having authored seven books and numerous articles. She currently serves as the Director of Training and Certification for TAPS. For more information and a complete listing of her books, visit www.griefinc.com.