The Year of "Firsts"

Author: Stephanie Frogge

Managing the Holiday Season 

For the recently bereaved, the year of “firsts” is an immediate challenge. Each holiday, significant event, personal milestone and family tradition can throw a spotlight on the unremitting ache of our beloved’s absence. We may be in the midst of emotional overload and depleted energy, but the calendar tells us that we’re expected to have some response to holidays and occasions.

Mid-November through early January immerses us in music and messages, signs and symbols, advertising and activity that cannot be avoided even if we don’t celebrate a particular holiday. Most cultures have one or more holy days during this period and many secular events such as New Year’s Eve take place as well. Social scientists and mental health professionals have long recognized the reality of holiday-related stress prompted by doing too much, spending too much, overindulging, maintaining unrealistic expectations, spending time with extended family members or any activities that take a physical and emotional toll. 

Wooden Reindeer Photo: @chuttersnap

For those whose loss occurs during the holiday season itself, there’s the additional trauma of knowing that special days will be forever associated with the death of a loved one. Having to manage details when people may be on vacation or otherwise unreachable, businesses closed or services temporarily unavailable increases the stress. As difficult as it is to cope with trauma when everything and everyone else is going about their normal business, the contrast is even greater when everything and everyone around you appears to be in the midst of happy celebration.

There is no right way to feel during this time. Some survivors may actually fare well the first year. As the Hospice Foundation of America notes: Numbness is a natural protection when facing any kind of trauma. Detached from the reality of the loss, you may function pretty well at first. This can be confusing to the people around you, who expect full-blown grief and suffering you may not yet feel. For those who were carried through the first holiday season on the sluice of shock, don’t be surprised if the second year is more challenging.

No matter where you are in your grief journey, techniques for managing stress are relevant. There’s no downside to taking good care of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually in all the seasons of our life. But for those in acute crisis or the depths of grief, something as banal as “get plenty of sleep” just doesn’t seem especially important even if it really is pretty good advice.

The following ideas come from TAPS survivors who know first-hand what it’s like to manage the holidays in the midst of acute grief. Adapt what is appropriate to your situation; disregard what isn't.

The worst thing that could happen has already happened. Against this reality the fact that the biscotti didn’t get baked, the cantor role fell to someone else, or cousin Helga is angry that you didn’t come to her party matters far less than it might otherwise. The ramifications of not doing this year the things that you’ve done in the past are actually very small, especially compared to the load you’re carrying right now. No one’s life is going to be ruined if you don’t put up the tree.

“No” is a complete sentence. Many of us believe that telling someone “no” will be more palatable if we explain why we’re declining. Practice saying to yourself, “Thank you. I’m not going to be able to do that this year.” No explanation necessary. If someone is obnoxious enough to ask why, or is unwilling to accept your answer, the issue is with them, not you. Simply repeat, “Thank you. I’m not going to be able to do that this year.”

You are not responsible for someone else’s feelings. Holiday traditions and rituals are important to everyone and when your coping strategies bump up against someone else’s idea of how things “should be,” there may be some backlash — as insensitive as it sounds (and is). If Opa’s mad because you’re not going to Christmas Eve service or everyone’s sulking because you didn’t bring your baklava or the third vice-president of the civic association resents having to pick up the slack for the holiday fundraiser, you are not responsible. Don’t explain. Don’t apologize. Don’t feel guilty. You’ve got more than enough on your plate.

“This year” isn’t the same as “every year.” Even as you’re saying no to holiday requests or grieving the loss of holiday traditions that will never be the same, try to be mentally open to the idea that you can revisit some of these things in the future. Christmas / Kwanza / Boxing Day will be awful this year. Not baking / not hosting your annual open house / not attending a party will be terrible this year. Being alone will be rotten this year. And this year is really all you need to cope with right now.

Lean on your “second string” support system. Bereaved people are often disappointed with the lack of support they receive from family members. Remember they are grieving too and, just as you have very little left to give, that’s true for them as well. For a time, you may need to look elsewhere for support and care. Your childhood friends, individuals from your faith community, a good therapist, your TAPS support, or a caring co-worker may be able to serve as grief companions early on in your journey more effectively than family.

Leave. Or don’t. Some survivors find a complete change of environment during the holidays to be a useful coping strategy. Removing yourself from the setting of holiday traditions may well make your loved one’s absence a little less acute. If the idea appeals and you have the wherewithal to do something different, give it a try. One important caveat: with the possible exception of a cave somewhere, there is no place on earth where you can go and not be reminded of the holidays. The first day of Hanukkah is always going to be on the 25th day of Kislev, regardless of where in the world you are. You may succeed in avoiding the familiar, but you’re probably not going to succeed in avoiding the holidays altogether.

If you have kids, much of this isn’t going to be helpful at all. If there are children involved, you’re going to want some semblance of a traditional holiday for their sake. Whatever you decide to do, be okay with the fact that it’s not going to be “the same.” The children already know that. If they’re old enough, let them help you decide how to navigate the holiday season. If they’re little, trust that whatever you’re able to pull off will be enough. Delegate as much as possible. Yes, people are busy this time of year, but most of them are willing to help if you give them some ideas. Ask your friends for help with shopping, wrapping, basic decorating, transportation and traditional foods. And remember that there’s no gift large enough or holiday experience spectacular enough to “cure” a grieving child so don’t even try.

Do something nice for someone else. This is actually one of the great paradoxes of grief. When you have the least to give emotionally, it actually helps to do a kind thing for someone else. We’re not talking about big gestures here — just hand a five-dollar bill to someone obviously down on their luck, identify something that belonged to your loved one and give it to someone you know will treasure it, or arrange to have a bag of pet food delivered to your local animal shelter.

Be very gentle with yourself. Refer back to the first tip: the worst thing that can happen has happened. Be as good to yourself as you can possibly be. Touch base with your health care provider, lean on your support system, stay hydrated, and try not to think too far into the future. And remember that TAPS is just a phone call away day or night, 365 days a year. 

Stephanie Frogge, MTS, TAPS Staff Associate, National Military Survivor Helpline