When You’re Grieving Through the Holidays

by James E. Miller

Whatever your age, whoever has died, whatever the cause of death, holidays lived in the absence of someone dear can be very difficult times. Customary routines are ended, never to be repeated in quite the same way. Easy-going laughter, once flowing so naturally, may become awkward or even altogether missing. Gift-giving, once so filled with fun, may seem somehow empty and sad. Familiar songs, once so comforting, may catch in your throat or bring tears to your eyes.
     All this happens against a backdrop of significant questions you may find yourself asking: What exactly is happening to me? Can I possibly survive this, and do I even want to? How long will this turmoil last? Is what I am feeling normal? Am I losing touch with my sanity?
     The holiday period itself adds its own share of questions: How can I make it through all the events of the holidays while missing so desperately the one I love? Would I be better off to ignore the holidays this year? Should I act as if everything were normal? Should I make major changes in my holiday rituals?
     If you’re like most people in grief, you will have many questions. It’s important for you to know at the outset that are few universal “right” and “wrong” answers. There may be various answers, depending upon the unique factors of your situation: who you are as a person, what your family is like, who it was who died, when and how they died, what your relationship with that person was, and the role that person played in your holiday rituals, to name only a few. It’s also important to remember that not all your questions will have ready answers. Sometimes you must learn by doing, and then learn even better by trying it another way.
     Keeping in mind there has never been a loss precisely like yours, there are still some general guidelines bereaved people have found helpful through the years. I will propose twelve of them. I hope you will treat them as suggestions rather than as prescriptions. Use them as ideas you can expand upon. Shape them to fit your distinct circumstances and to serve your personal needs. Above all else, remember that others, many others, have faced something similar to what you’re facing right now. They have learned what it is like to endure and to survive and often even to grow through their experience. What they have learned is what you can learn, too. The ways they have persevered are ways you can adopt as well.
     Most of all, I hope you’ll choose to believe this: your holidays can still be a significant time for you. They will be different, but they can still be meaningful. They may hurt, but they can also hold hope—even great hope.

Take charge where you can.

There is much in your life, of course, that has moved beyond your command. The loss you’ve experienced and the resulting inescapable changes have robbed you of a power you may have taken for granted. Yet there are some actions you can take and some decisions you can make that are within your authority. Begin to take control of your life in specific ways, even if those ways seem small.
     If the death you’ve experienced isn’t too recent, this may be a good time to evaluate the holiday traditions you’ve established through the years. Which ones are meaningful, ones you want to keep? Which ones have outgrown their usefulness? Which ones might you forego for a year or two, and which ones are so important to you that you must perform them, even if it’s hard to do? Which ones can you adapt to fit this year’s circumstances?
     Generally speaking, this is usually not the best time to make drastic changes, like starting life over in a new town, or celebrating the holidays in a faraway place among people who do not appreciate what has happened to you. But some changes can be healthy and even important to make. It might make sense to change your holiday meal routine, by dining out at a restaurant rather than at home, or by having the main meal in another’s home, or by planning a new menu. Changes might be made in how holiday decorations are done. Or how gifts are given out, or when, or where. Consider designing new rituals—ones that will include opportunities to remember the past while acknowledging that the present has changed.
     Keep in mind there are other ways for you to assume some control over your life. Eating healthfully and drinking wisely is a good start. Maintain your exercise program, or begin one if you’ve not been in the habit. Research has demonstrated this will help you feel better, mentally as well as physically. A brisk walk each day is one of the best exercises you can perform, especially if you can do it out of doors. Consult your physician if you have any questions.
     Another action you can take is to try to get your proper amount of sleep. Go to bed early enough to get the rest you need. If you’re sleeping too much, limit your time in bed. It’s not unusual, however, for your sleep patterns to change for awhile, even a long while.
     In general, choose life in all the ways you can. Be among people who offer you vitality. Practice those disciplines that bring you energy. Do those things that give you satisfaction. Take charge in little ways and you’ll find they’re not so little—they’re important.

Jim Miller has many more suggestions for making your way through the holidays when you’re grieving in his book How Will I Get Through the Holidays? 12 Ideas for Those Whose Loved One Has Died. More information is available here.