The whole world seems consumed with merry-making; every place filled with decorations and lights and people oozing with holiday spirit. The decorations in that photo might look more like balls of lit up barbed wire to a person going through the fiery pain of grief than they do lovely reminders of the coming of the light.
The holidays can make those of us who are bereaved and grieving even more painfully aware of the terrible hole in our hearts--if that's possible. It can certainly seem that way during the holiday season.
Bereavement is the state of being deprived of something precious to us. The word comes from Old English bereafian, a word which meant to deprive, to seize violently, to plunder, to rob. The bereaved feel robbed for sure. Grief is our reaction, our experiences and feelings, that come in response to that state of being robbed of something so precious. As awful as it is, grief is a normal and healthy response. Mourning is the outward expression of grief. To mourn is to openly acknowledge our feelings and experiences of grief. Actively mourning during the holiday season can be a way of helping us to cope.
Openly acknowledging your grief and pain during the coming holiday season can help you make it through, and perhaps help you find some comfort and possibly even joy. Some ways of doing this include finding ways to honor the memory of your loved one while being honest with yourself, your family, and friends about what you need during the holiday season. Spend some time thinking about your family’s traditions and practices during the holiday season and imagine what those will be like this year without your loved one. This exercise will be painful, but it will help you to decide what you may need to make it through, and what things may need to change, for the fast approaching holiday season.
Make A Plan
Know, without a doubt, that the holidays will be difficult and painful. It can be incredibly helpful to make a plan to do some things differently. Make a plan that will include your beloved; their name, memories, and stories, in conversations and activities. Acknowledge their continuing presence in your life, and your ongoing love, as well as the pain you feel due to their terrible absence. Create new traditions, such as lighting a candle or saying a prayer, for your loved one at a particular time of day or day of the week. You can do this on your own, at family gatherings, or both. You might donate to a charity in their name, plan a visit to the cemetery, watch her favorite holiday movie, listen to his favorite songs, engage in activities that honor their life and memory.
It's a good idea to have more than one plan. Plan A might include joining in family celebrations, plan B might include acknowledgment that, if plan A is too difficult, you will give yourself permission to stay home, or to leave early. Let it be OK to change your traditions and activities. In some cases, you may decide to cancel the holiday altogether. Let this be OK too, if that is what you need. Everyone is different. We all grieve and mourn differently.
Some bereaved people find comfort in the routine and traditions of the holidays, while others simply feel they cannot face the holidays this year with so much pain and sorrow in their hearts. Whatever your personal needs, have a plan for how you will manage the holiday and plan for a specific activity that you will do on the actual holiday, as well as at important family gatherings. If you decide not to go with the plan you have made once the holiday arrives, this is ok too, but do have a plan. Bereaved and grieving people who don't plan for the holidays and other important days can have a much more difficult time getting through those significant times than those who do have a plan—even if they decide not to follow the plan. And I have done it both ways. Having a plan is far more preferable.
It is far better to prepare for the holidays than to pretend they don't exist. Even if your plan includes pretending they don't exist, having a plan helps you through. It's true that the day is only a number on a calendar, but our culture is filled with symbols, advertising, Hallmark specials, decorations, merry makers and all number of reminders which are tied to our emotions and memories--not to mention the collective unconscious of us all that knows this is a special time of the year as it turns. Our inner experience is nearly impossible to escape. Putting on blinders rarely is the answer.
Check in with yourself right now: Have you thought about how you will get through this season? Do you have plans for honoring, remembering and memorializing your loved one this holiday season? Do you have a plan for maintaining your own well-being during these next few months? Do you have support and an outlet for sharing your thoughts and feelings? Do you have people who will listen to you without judgment or advice about what you "should" or "should not" do? Can you give yourself permission to grieve, and also to possibly have fun, experience comfort, or even joy, fleeting as it might be? These questions all bear thinking about and the answers will help you make it through this difficult season.
Along with giving yourself permission to do things differently, give yourself permission to have some pleasure as well. It’s OK to laugh or smile, even through your sadness. Those things do not weaken your connection to your loved one, neither do they mean that you do not care, or that you are not grieving. One of the hardest, and most powerful, things for me in this journey has been learning to hold the deep pain alongside the love, the miserable next to the beautiful, the bitter with the sweet.
Our loved ones and their memories, will forever be a part of our lives, whether they are physically present or not. Learning how to navigate not only the difficult terrain of the holiday season, but the landscape of the rest of our lives, is sadly, part of the task of survivors. Having a plan will help.
How to Make a Plan?
Taking the time to come up with a plan for how you will deal with the holiday season may be very painful, but having a plan will be one of the best things you can do for yourself to help yourself manage the pain of this upcoming season. Very early in grief, friend of mine whose daughter died told me, "Have a plan. You don't have to stick to the plan, but have it anyway." It may be the single best piece of advice given to me as a bereaved parent. It is the one and only piece of advice I myself give to other bereaved people. I generally stay away from advice giving, but that one piece of advice is worth giving--and following.
Tips for Coming up With Your Plan:
Spend some time thinking about how you and your family usually spend the holidays. What family traditions occur year after year? What do you think those traditions and rituals will be like this year? How will you cope?
Make some decisions about your family's holiday traditions.
Make a list of ones you think you might want to participate in.
Make a list of those you think you cannot face this year.
Make a list of traditions you think you maybe, might want to or be able to participate in. This works best if you write it down on paper or type it on your phone, tablet or computer. Writing it down helps clarify thoughts and feelings.
Think of ways you can honor your beloved in current family traditions.
Think of new ways to honor your beloved's memory.
Decide whether you'd like to involve other family members. It's ok to include your loved one. You might participate in acts of kindness in their memory, donate to a charity in her name, light a special candle at family meals, place a photo of him in a place of honor, volunteer over the holiday, give small mementos to friends and family that remind them of her.
Give yourself permission to grieve.
Give yourself permission to cry.
Give yourself permission to have pleasure or fun.
Give yourself permission to laugh if you feel like it.
Give yourself permission to be flexible.
Give yourself permission to what you need to do.
Identify your support system and let them know you may need extra help.
Have plans A, B, C, D, and so on if you need them.
Include self-care in your plan--massage, walks, relaxing baths, exercise, sleep.
Know that it's OK to not follow your plan or change it anytime you want.
Please feel free to look over, print, and use the Make a Plan Worksheets below to help in managing the difficult holiday season. You may find that these can help focus your thoughts as you grieve and move through the holidays. Feel free to share the graphic below as well as the worksheet with anyone you know who is grieving. We all need each other to help us through.