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Coping with Grief During the Holidays

Two sad girls

When we look from a distance at someone who has suffered the death of a loved one, we usually think of that death as an event, a specific incident that happened at such-and-such date and time and place.

But no. That’s not how it works. Yes, there was a specific date when a dying happened. But a death — for those who have lost someone, a death knows no end.

Death is the absence of the one we love.

The dying — the beginning of that absence — occurs, and then the next moment happens, and the moment after that. The moments pile up over time and turn into days, and months, and years, and in every single one of those moments the one we love continues to be gone.

Grief Gets Even Harder During the Holidays

The one we love continues to be gone during the holiday season as well, of course. You know they won’t be here — and steel yourself for their absence during this family time of year. No matter how much you prepare yourself, though, anticipating how the holiday season will magnify the loss of the one you love, what you don’t see coming are the other losses that keep appearing.

What doesn’t hit you at first is that, when your loved one left this life, he or she dragged a whole lot more of your world through that crack than you could ever imagine. Over the days and months following the death, you inevitably find yourself tripping over holes as you discover yet another item or routine or tradition or symbol that’s now gone too, gone with that person.

These other losses aren’t limited to the end-of-year holidays — but think about all the traditions, routines, and symbols wrapped up in this season. At this time of year, there are so many more pieces of your old life that you now discover are lost, broken, or gone entirely.

Who Will Carve the Turkey Now?

Grandpa died last March.

A big family Thanksgiving dinner has been held at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for as far back as any of the kids can remember. Everyone comes in from all over the place. And this year, even though her children don’t want to burden her, Grandma insists that the tradition continue. “Just like always,” she says.

Family saying grace before dinner.

The big day arrives. You’re glad to be there, but you know that Grandpa’s absence is going to be the biggest presence in that old house. You hope you can hold it together.

Somehow Grandma yet again figures out how to finish all the food at the same time. The turkey comes out of the oven to sit and rest while the remainder of the food is set out on the table.

All the kids sit together at the end of the table, the rest of the family aligned along the sides. By unspoken consent, over the months of visits since Grandpa died, his seat at the head of the table has remained vacant. And so it is today. Even though that empty chair points to his absence all the more, no one feels it would be right to take his place.

The turkey is brought to the table, smelling heavenly. And then people start to look around at each other. Uneasy. A cough here. A chair scrape there. It dawns on the family that there’s only one way that this meal has ever been started, and that’s with Grandpa’s blessing. It wasn’t thought of until this very moment. It’s just a minute or two every year, but it had been woven into the fabric of all of their lives — and now they find that yet one more treasure has been lost forever.

One of the older adults finally fills in, but as the short, halting prayer is uttered, something else dawns on the family: Who will carve the turkey now? This is something else that Grandpa always took care of, with a flourish, with style. It’s not that others aren’t capable of carving. It’s just that everyone has watched Grandpa do it for so many years that, like his seat at the head of the table, it doesn’t feel right for anyone else to take it on.

You had prepared yourself for missing Grandpa through this long, difficult day, and you’ve done surprisingly well in holding it together. You were even okay as you looked sadly at that empty chair. But these two new surprising tears in the fabric of tradition — in your tradition, in the life of your family — threaten to undo you.

Getting Through the Holidays After a Death in the Family: Tips from the Highmark Caring Place

Sad boy

At the Highmark Caring Place, we spend time with grieving children, adolescents and families all year round. We hear about the holes formed when traditions or routines are broken or lost after someone in the family dies. Because the holiday season is so full of traditions, we know that even more of those holes appear around the holidays, making an already hard time even harder.

Whether a death occurred a few weeks ago or years ago, the holidays can sometimes feel like a minefield — you don’t know what loss you’ll stumble across next. Besides these surprises, there’s the contrast you can’t help but feel with your memories of past holidays. And it’s hard not to look at other families and feel set apart.

But you can get through the holidays. Here are some things you can do to help yourself and your family during this time of year:

  • Be with supportive people. Find those people who accept your feelings, who understand that the holidays can be more difficult and who allow you to express your feelings — happy and sad.
  • Talk about your grief, and about the person who has died. With people you trust, share your feelings and your memories. Ignoring them by trying to keep busy won’t make the feelings go away, and could increase your stress and anxiety under the surface. Embrace your memories — one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone you love. Memories that were made in love cannot be taken away by anyone.
  • Remember your limits. Grieving takes energy. You may find that you have even less energy now than at other times of the year. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to take whatever time for yourself you need.
  • Plan family get-togethers. Focus on your needs, not on what well-meaning friends might have planned for you. Decide with your family what traditions you would like to continue, what traditions you would like to begin, and what traditions you’re going to need to let go of this year. Rituals can express respect and speak of lasting love — but not by chaining you to behaviors that don’t serve your needs. Having a plan — which you can change at any point if you wish to — can help you from being caught off guard.
  • Remember that different people grieve differently — even within the same family. Allow everyone in the family to express their desires for the holidays. If some family members can’t bear to even see holiday decorations, and other members would like to make things as much like the Old Days as possible, try to see how much each person’s wishes can be accommodated. If a fully decked-out family room would be unbearable for some, what about smaller decorations? Or even paper ornaments made by children and kept in their rooms? If going to a traditional religious service is out of the question for a parent, perhaps another caring adult could take children if the children still want to go. In many cases, the choices don’t have to be all or nothing.
  • Allow children space to grieve in their own way. Be prepared for any type of reaction from children. Be patient with anger or meanness, but also be careful of a child trying to “be strong” for you. They need to grieve as well. And, especially with older children, don’t expect that they should spend the entire day with you. They may need the support and security of hanging out with friends.
  • Don’t get caught in holiday myths. While it may seem that you are the only one outside the holiday cheer and light, remember that in the real world the holidays produce more stress and pain than joy for many people. Losses and separations of all kinds make this a difficult season, as does the stress of bringing families together. In light of this, there is no reason for guilt, no reason for wondering about family and friends, “Am I ruining their holidays?” You don’t need to provide the perfect holiday. The most important gifts are listening and love — which you may be able to give more fully because of your grief.
  • Express your faith. If your faith is important, you may want to attend a holiday service. And think of the meaning of the holidays themselves, which are not rooted in pure pleasure and enjoyment. Death and loss are not incompatible with the sacred truths at the heart of any of the holidays.
  • Remember that your grief is important. Grief is born out of giving and receiving love. Be patient with yourself, love yourself, and don’t let anyone take your grief away. Allow yourself to be surrounded by loving, caring people. If we did not love, we would not grieve.

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