Updated: Dec 21, 2022
We're nearly halfway into December and many different holidays are about to begin. For many, it’s an exciting time of year full of colour, lights, music, joy, family, food, favourite decorations…and perhaps presents. For those who are grieving, it can feel a bit like a punch to the gut.
All of the joy and celebration and family time act as reminders that someone who should be here is no longer here. The thought of facing that empty chair during an annual celebration can be overwhelming. The best-case scenario is when only one person is missing from a full table. For some, there is no table at all because everyone is now gone. Either way, the winter holiday season can be an incredibly lonely time for many.
There is no easy solution to the pain we feel during the holiday season when someone we love is no longer with us. We miss them deeply. Here are a few of the ways you can handle your grief during the festivities:
Be Kind to Yourself
First and foremost, take care of yourself in whatever way is best for you. Each of us is unique, and so is our grief. Be kind to yourself and do as much or as little as you need to do to feel okay during this time.
This means allowing yourself to feel whatever you are feeling and not pressuring yourself to feel differently. This is true not only for sadness and grief but also for happiness as well. Don’t shut down lighthearted moments or laughter because you feel guilty that you aren’t sad in that moment. You are allowed to enjoy life even though you are living life without your person.
Taking care of yourself also means focusing on what you can control and being honest with yourself about what you need and what your limits are. Be careful not to medicate with substances. Try to sleep well and get some exercise, both of which have a positive impact on mood.
Plan and Prepare
Whether you do it on your own or with the help of a grief counsellor, develop a plan for how you will handle the difficult days or the most difficult moments during specific days. Particularly if this is your first holiday since a death, it’s important to recognize that this year is different, and celebrations may need to adjust accordingly.
Knowing ahead of time that you will step outside for fresh air when you are feeling overwhelmed or that you have the freedom to show up or leave when you want may ease your worry about how you may handle each event. Establish boundaries and expectations with your family. Let them know in advance that you plan to come but might choose to leave early, or that you may step into another room whenever you need a minute to yourself to cry, meditate, or pray, so it won’t be a surprise in the moment. This better enables those who love you to provide support and avoid pressuring you in unhelpful ways.
Try Not to Isolate Yourself Entirely
Sometimes self-care looks like staying home and being alone because the thought of putting a smile on your face and celebrating is simply too much for you. This may be especially true when your grief is new and fresh and/or holiday plans require significant travel. If being alone is what will benefit you in the moment, then communicate that need and stay home. Just be mindful of not completely isolating yourself for extended periods, which could lead to negative thinking and unproductive behaviours. Try to find a healthy balance between solitude and socialization.
Honour Your Person and Create New Traditions
Find a way to incorporate your person into the holidays in a meaningful way. You can mourn their absence while also acknowledging their significance in your life. It doesn’t matter whether you engage in traditional holiday rituals, or you decide to invent something entirely new. Incorporating your deceased loved one into a holiday celebration not only keeps their memory alive but can also be soothing for your soul. This is also an opportunity to get creative and have some fun. Whatever you decide may end up becoming a new holiday tradition that your family enjoys for years to come!
Don't Forget the Children
Children grieve too, but their grief is often overlooked by many adults. They may crave connection and conversation as well. Give them opportunities to talk about and celebrate the person they've lost without pressuring them to do so. Ask if they have ideas for how to incorporate their loved one into the holidays and honour their memory. They may require extra closeness and comfort from their guardians during the holidays. Keep routines and traditions to offer stability while also being flexible and letting go of any need for a "perfect" holiday. Prepare to change plans as needed and build in opportunities for kids to take breaks if/when the celebrations feel a bit too overwhelming.
Cari Ferguson is a grief and death educator. She is also HHA’s professional development training programs lead and candidate advisor. You can learn more about Cari at www.strongwinds.ca.