Let’s be real, the holidays are tough. Some of us travel hours to get home to find ourselves sleeping on couches that are available for free. Many of us are responsible for ensuring that the small people we’ve created wake up to a joyous experience. Others of us are running around to make sure that every detail of our holiday dinner is perfect. And most of us experience extra stress in general when visiting our families because, well, our families can be stressful. But the holidays can be extra difficult for those who have experienced a significant loss and feel a stronger sense of grief than normal during this time of the year.
Since my dad passed away when I was really young, I don’t remember what it was like to have him around for the holidays but I innately know that it must have been better. Fuller somehow. More joyful with him at the table. This year will mark 22 years since he has been with us for Christmas and it’s now the norm. I don’t know how or when this happened but I do know that I no longer wake up on Christmas morning expecting to hear his voice.
Despite the fact that being fatherless is now normal, that doesn’t stop me from wondering every year what Christmas might be like with him. What would I buy him for Christmas? What would he buy me? How might our traditions be different if he was still here? Would I get into the Christmas spirit more? What would it be like if that seat at the table wasn’t empty? Questions flood my mind as I look around the room and recognize his absence. Grief doesn’t hit me too often these days but the holiday season can definitely be a trigger if I haven’t prepared for it.
So, what do you do when the holidays meet your grief? The absolute best advice I can give you here is to just survive. Make it through the holidays despite your loss and figure the rest out later. Survival looks different for all of us but it’s really about self care, self love and remembering that the love we experienced with the person we lost is very real and still exists, despite their physical absence. I’ve outlined a few of the coping mechanisms I use during this time of year and hope you find it helpful if this season is difficult for you.
1. Meditation/Journaling. These are both practices that I use during my every day life but find them especially useful during this time of year. Meditation helps clear my mind and reminds me that I am always able to connect back to myself and ultimately to my dad. Journaling allows me to get out all the thoughts I can’t share with anyone or even the things I want to say to my dad. Once it’s on paper, I no longer have to carry it and can officially let it go into the loving hands of the Universe.
2. Honor Your Loved One. For me this usually comes in the form of a donation to The American Cancer Society in his name. It helps me feel better by allowing me to give back while reminding the world the he existed. It could also be something as simple as visiting their grave and putting up a holiday wreath to celebrate with them. Or buying a card that you think they’d enjoy and writing it out to them. Whatever feels right to you, do that.
3. Honor What You Want. You control what you do and when. While I don’t advocate shutting yourself off from the rest of the world (trust me, it doesn’t work), I do believe you have the right to say “no” to anything that doesn’t honor your soul. Similarly, you have the right to leave any situation that makes you uncomfortable or upset without having to explain yourself. If you find yourself in a situation of extreme holiday grief or anxiety, do whatever feels best for you. I’ve learned to do this in my every day life as well. If it doesn’t honor my soul, I’m simply not giving it the time of day.
4. Talk About Your Loved One. If you’re dealing with loss this holiday season, it’s likely palpable at every holiday event. Don’t feel ashamed or afraid to speak with love about your loss. Share memories as appropriate. Laugh when you remember their happiness. Talk about what might happen if they were in the room. Cry if you need to. Remember that they lived and loved and that their presence is as real as the person sitting next to you.
5. Feel What You Need To Feel Without Shame. Cry. Laugh. Scream. Seriously! Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up and honor that they are all a part of the process. While we recognize that grief comes in 5 stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), making it to acceptance doesn’t mean that we no longer feel emotional about the loss. Acceptance simply means that we have accepted the fact that they are gone not that we never feel their absence.
I hope this is helpful as you navigate through this holiday season with your grief. As someone who has been on this journey for 22 holiday seasons, I can tell you that you’re not alone even though you might feel like it. Give yourself space to breathe and enjoy the holidays as much as you possibly can. If you haven’t worked through your grief, this might be the perfect time to recognize that and decide that you want to do the work. While no amount of inner work will ever replace the person you lost, you can decide to move yourself forward emotionally with love.