Christmas is a joyful season, a time for family and children’s excitement, a reason to give gifts of love and appreciation, a time to reflect on the meaning of the birth of our Lord, and an opportunity to remember those less fortunate while recognizing God’s blessings. If you have experienced the death of a loved one, however, the holiday season often seems to intensify feelings of sadness and loneliness.
Sooner or later we are all bereaved. Death takes a grandparent, a sibling, a spouse, a child, a friend, or a dear companion pet. Whether you’ve lost a loved one or not, we can all reflect on how difficult navigating the holidays may be when a loved one is no longer physically present with us.
Memories of past holidays contrast sharply against the present one where the absence of our loved ones is acutely visible. Children and adults often feel alone, outside the circle of the joyfulness and cheer, different from, and not understood by their peers.
We may contemplate such questions as: How am I going to make it through the holidays? How can I help my child through this time, especially in light of my own grief? We may just want to sleep through or skip these next few weeks. We wonder why the holidays are still painful even though we grieved last year. The holidays may still only bring us hurt and bitterness. How, therefore, can we rejoice?
Know, first, that recovery from a painful loss is a slow process. Despite your grief, Christmas can become a blessing, a time for hope. Know you can find meaning and solace during these challenging days.
Let go of expectations of what the holiday should be.
In our culture, these seasonal holidays are not just holy days of great religious significance; it is also a preeminent holiday. It may cover weeks of preparation involving shopping, decorating, baking, parties, pageants, and more. It dominates the economy and media. Our norm may have been to become part of the whirlwind of activities and cheer.
This time, however, allow yourself to have a different holiday from what is the general norm. Do what comforts and nourishes you, what you are capable of doing. Simplify what you customarily did in the past. You might decorate but on a smaller scale. You might reduce gift giving or decline some party invitations. Do what you can and let that be enough.
Grieving takes energy. You may have less energy now than at other times of the year. Be gentle with yourself and your family and allow yourself to take whatever time you need for yourself. Whatever you feel or decide to do in participating in this holiday, don’t deny yourself the gift of healing tears.
Allow yourself to remember Christmases past.
Memories can bring healing to your grief. Sift through decorations, photos, or cards. Share your memories with others and listen to theirs. Use your loved one’s name in conversation. List examples of your loved one’s giving spirit and what was accomplished through it.
Remember your loved one in your Christmas traditions. You might set a place for this person at the Christmas table, hang that special ornament or their stocking on your mantel. Write a Christmas letter to your loved one. Sit among other family or friends – this may trigger warm, lovely memories of your loved one. Be prepared for this and don’t be surprised by your tears.
Sometimes, all we can remember are the painful details surrounding our loved one’s death. This holiday season try to remember all the wonderful moments of your loved one’s life – the gifts that were given to you – the joy, laughter, affection, and companionship.
Plan out your activities.
Grief can ebb and flow and, thus, surprise and overwhelm us. While this is OK and necessary, we want to be mindful of our responsibilities and commitments. Thus, focus on your and your family’s needs can be helpful in planning space for grieving and reducing off-guard moments. Decide with your family what traditions to continue and what to postpone. Your life will never be the same now – your grief is a process. Part of this process may be changing traditions and rituals and discovering new meanings.
Limit your involvement in activities.
Don’t be tempted to immerse yourself in too many holiday activities as a means to avoid the painful grief. Grief will arise in some form unexpectedly regardless of efforts to suppress it. It is not something to “get over” or “put behind” us. There are lessons to learn during these times about ourselves after our loss. When we allow ourselves silence, time to be alone and not constantly engaged in celebrating, eating, drinking, or other means of avoidance, we slowly begin to accept the emptiness in our heart and to adjust to the absence of our loved one. It is then that we can look towards the purpose God has for us.
Seek out supportive people.
Please reach out even though you may believe that others should be rushing to your side at this time. Many people are tentative and may be fearful in approaching you, believing reminders of your grief is not welcome. You, too, may learn that some people you would normally turn towards are unable to recognize or understand your grief. This time may be a learning process. Please don’t give up. There are people who accept your feelings, know the holidays are difficult, and will allow you to express your feelings. Romans 12:15 – “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
JoMarie Grinkiewicz is involved in GriefShare, an adult grief support group, and Rainbows for All God’s Children, a children’s grief support group, at Catherine Catholic Church. For more information on either group, email JoMarie at email@example.com.