This time of year, brings many challenges to those who are going through difficult times. In particular, those who have experienced the death of a loved one, especially in recent days, months or weeks before the holiday season. The anticipation of getting through the holidays can provide extenuating feelings of anxiety, sorrow and fear. When someone you love is no longer going to be a part of family celebrations, one’s instinct may be to hide away, draw the curtains, and crawl into bed. It seems that others’ lives continue as though unaffected, and yet everything about the bereaved person’s life has been pitched into chaos.
It is never a good idea to pretend as though those special days (e.g., Christmas, New Years, Hannukah) no longer exist. Even if you can try and pretend that celebratory days are just “another day”, somehow your body remembers the importance of those days, and hence all that is absent.
Life will never be the same again without your loved one. Holidays will never be the same without that special person in your life that has died. Special occasions will forever be changed. Instead of being a passive recipient to all that will be difficult during those anticipated dates, make a plan – whether structured or semi-structured – to assist with those challenging times.
My barely 14-year-old daughter died on October 25 in 2006. The prospect of Christmas was the furthest thing on my mind in the direct aftermath of her death. But as fall turned to winter, and people’s Christmas lights went up, and the malls began to play Christmas music, I was faced with the certainty, that for the rest of the world time was moving on. Joy was all around, it seemed, though my heart was destroyed and the physical pain from such a huge loss in my life was still visceral in Christmas 2006. And even though I still had my son, I just wanted to shut down and block the world out.
So, for those of you who are suffering during this holiday season, make a plan for a “different” kind of Christmas. Create new traditions. You don’t have to make a commitment to do things different for all the years following, but maybe you will want to, and that is alright. Here are some ideas that you may want to utilize this holiday season to assist you in just “getting through”:
1. Place a candle in memory of your loved one at the holiday table or in a prominent spot during the family celebrations.
2. Instead of purchasing gifts, donate funds to a charity in memory of your loved one.
3. Ask that others donate funds to a charity in memory of your loved one instead of buying you gifts.
4. Place an ornament in memory of that special person that has died in your life.
5. Continue to hang up that deceased person’s stocking and instead of filling it with goodies – every one write a message to the person who has died, and place it in the stocking. Later in the day you may want to read them aloud, or keep them private and ceremoniously burn them.
6. Take a trip with your family and go somewhere completely different.
7. Make a toast at your dinner to your loved one who has died.
8. Set a place at the table for that person that has died.
9. Be honest and tell people what you do and do not want to do as part of the holidays.
10. Pick a few special items of your deceased loved one and “gift” them to friends and family that you know will appreciate them.
11. Visit the gravesite or niche of your loved one on or during the holiday season.
12. Spend the time with people who are loving and supportive of whatever you are going through.
13. Have an exit strategy if you are not able to stay for a full gathering – and don’t feel bad.
14. Do not feel obligated to buy gifts. You do not have to. Spending time with people you love is the most important.
15. Play your loved one’s favourite holiday music (my daughter always loved the Chieftains “Bells of Dublin” Christmas album. Although it was difficult to listen to at first, it is by far my lifetime favourite holiday album).
16. Accept any and all help. You certainly are under no obligation to host any holiday events.
17. Do not over-commit yourself to gatherings, events, or obligations.
18. Ignore those who tell you what you “should” be doing during the holiday season. Though well intentioned, they have not walked in your shoes.
19. Volunteer in your loved one’s memory during the holidays (e.g., at the foodbank, soup kitchen, animal shelter).
20. Purchase a gift that you would have bought for your loved one, and donate it to someone in need.
This list is in no way exhaustive. So please brainstorm your own ideas and create your own unique traditions. Spend time, though, with those who support you and love you.
And remember, it is okay to have moments of happiness. It is even alright to laugh at times. And as always - it is okay to cry. Tell stories about that person who has died. Encourage others to do the same. You are still alive, and that special person who has died, would honour whatever you need to do to get through the holidays.
My first Christmas, after my daughter died, was a blur. My sister, in all her love, took a risk and decided to surprise me with a special Christmas tree at her house that year (where I would be spending Christmas). She gingerly led me into her living room to show me her Christmas tree – without necessarily knowing my reaction. Here she had carefully decorated the tree with green bracelets in memory of my daughter (we had sold green bracelets as a fundraiser for research into Rhabdomyosarcoma). And there at the top of the tree was the star with a photo of my daughter’s face as the centerpiece for the star. I was so incredibly touched by her love and generosity. There was my daughter, just shy of two months after she died, shining down on all of us as we celebrated Christmas that year. There was no forgetting the importance she had in our life and would continue to have in our life.