The holidays are supposed to be a time for togetherness and making family memories.
But what happens when your family isn’t complete?
While everyone around you seems to be celebrating, here you are getting hit with yet another wave of grief that just makes you want to hide until it’s over.
No matter when the loss was, there’s something about the holidays that makes it feel like it just happened. The whole first year, if your loss was recent, is a litany of “firsts” without your loved one, and the holidays are just never going to be the same because not all of the important people are there.
It is easy to let the grief completely consume us and take over the experience.
It would be easy to just hide until it’s over.
Not decorate and pretend the holidays aren’t happening. But what about the rest of your family? All this does is makes you feel more isolated and like there’s nothing left to look forward to.
You might notice that it’s easy to get stuck in some pretty unhealthy patterns when it comes to stuff like this. Although you tell yourself that you’re only going to hide from the holiday season this one year, it quickly becomes a painful habit of not being able to face this time of year, not celebrating with family and friends, and dreading the weather change.
Perhaps it was your father who died. It was unexpected and fast. You didn’t know you needed to be preparing yourself and now that it’s happened you have no idea how to pick up the pieces of your shattered heart so that you can move on. There are questions you didn’t expect. Who are you without your father? Who are you going to call when you feel frustrated and alone? Who is going to play with your kids the way he did? Your chest feels like it’s collapsing every time you think about it, so the idea of sitting through a holiday dinner pretending that everything is fine just makes you want to throw up.
At the time it might have felt like celebrating holidays had to be either the way it always used to be or not happen at all.
You might have felt as though celebrating would be disrespectful to his memory.
How can you sit here sipping eggnog and smiling blandly while someone else sits in his place at the table?
The problem is that by avoiding the holidays altogether all you are doing is keeping yourself from the only people in the whole world who understand some of what you’ve lost; the other people who also lost him.
Eventually you get to a place where the mere idea of holidays makes your chest tighten and has you running in the other direction. If this were just one year, maybe it would make more sense to shelter yourself in this way, but the unfortunate truth is that when we avoid events like these because we don’t want to feel everything that comes up, it only gets harder to face it the next time. By not giving yourself the opportunity to process your feelings and move through the experience, painful as it is, you are teaching yourself that you are not capable of getting through this, and it will cause more avoidance later.
The holidays are hard for a lot of people, and grief is one of the major reasons this time of year is so fraught.
It’s okay to need to go slowly, to need to take breaks, and to not push yourself too hard.
Facing the holidays after losing a loved one is an incredibly painful experience; there’s no denying that. However, if we can learn how to move through the holiday season in a thoughtful and careful way, we can allow ourselves to experience some of the holiday spirit. When we learn how to incorporate our lost loved ones into our holiday rituals it is entirely possible to feel like we are honoring their memory and still loving and appreciating the people who are left behind.
Keep reading to learn how to get through the holiday season with a bit of holiday spirit.
Lost in grief
Grief is debilitating. You have already lost so much, and now grief has taken the brightness out of the holiday season and left you feeling decidedly un-celebratory.
You find yourself staring at the lights you usually love and feeling empty and hollow instead.
Living this way is empty and depressing, and you can’t imagine having to continue on like this.
Find small joys and honor your loved one’s memory
Although the grief threatens, at times, to overwhelm you, you can re-define what the holidays mean to you, so that you can celebrate with the people you love and still remember the people you’ve lost.
When we choose to create new rituals to honor the loved ones we have lost, there is the possibility of getting to have the holidays with the rest of your family and stay connected with less guilt and without the gaping hole of the missing person.
You can create new rituals to incorporate into your holiday so that you can grief together with the people who love you and understand what you’ve lost, so you can continue to make new memories, without just forgetting the person who died.
How to create new rituals to build into your holidays
You might be being crushed by the weight of having to celebrate the holidays without your loved one. One way to honor your loved one’s memory and allow yourself an opportunity to experience the holidays with the people who love you is to create new rituals to honor your loved one. Making these new rituals may seem difficult at the outset, but all you are really doing is creating an outlet so that you can be honest about what’s going on inside your heart. When you follow these steps, you will be able to find ways to honor the person who died and still feel connected to your family this holiday season.
Take a look at these steps to see how you can celebrate the holidays in a way that feels authentic and respectful of the person who isn’t there this year.
Create new rituals to honor the person you lost
One of the main reasons the holiday season feels so overwhelming right now is that you don’t know how to do the same rituals you’ve been doing year after year without a cherished family member. It makes complete sense that you are feeling guilty for even thinking about celebrating when they can’t be here. Creating new rituals that incorporate your memories of the person who died can help you feel less like you are just moving on as though they never mattered.
1) Consider the Importance of the Person You Lost
When you think about the holidays, what role does this person play in the festivities? Were they the cook? Did they make jokes that lightened everyone’s mood? Maybe they were a pain in everyone’s butt and made everyone decorate the tree or put up lights ‘just so’. Whatever it is that this person would contribute to the experience of the holiday, consider what this meant to you and the rest of your family.
Spend some time thinking about what might be different without them there.
This is very painful, but a necessary part of the process.
In session we can explore this in a contained, safe way. If I notice that you are becoming lost in your pain or having a hard time staying on task, I can very gently guide and support you so that you can come back to yourself. This exploration is harrowing but there are light moments in remembering as well. You might find yourself smiling when you remember how difficult or quirky your loved one was. I can help you notice and spend a bit more time on those memories.
When you explore what your loved one used to bring to the table, you will be protecting yourself from nasty surprises, and also starting the process of identifying where the holes in your holiday experience might be.
2) Consider What Was Important to Your Loved One About the Holidays
When we are working through grief, it is not about distancing ourselves from the person we lost, it is really about internalizing parts of who they were so we can take the best parts of them with us into the rest of our lives. Thinking back on the many holidays you got to spend with your loved one, you will likely be able to identify what the holiday meant to them. They might have said it openly at one point (or many times) or they might have just acted in a way that made it clear what they valued. Maybe the best part of Christmas to your father was sitting in front of the tree with only a fire for light sipping on good whiskey. Maybe the most special part of the holiday for your mom was watching the young children rip into their presents early in the morning.
With my clients, I help them sort through the jumble of memories they have been bombarded with lately so that we can pull out the parts of the holiday that really reflect the values and preferences of the person who died. We do this slowly and gently, so that my clients get to reminisce about their loved one and feel the multitude of confusing emotions that come with the memories.
After you do this you can start to identify what your loved one would have wanted you to do this holiday season.
When you ask yourself the question of what they would have wanted you to do, this process will help you develop an answer to that question.
3) Identify New Rituals You Can Use to Incorporate Your Loved One’s Memory
Now that you know what you would miss the most about not having your loved one with you this holiday season, and you have done some considering about what was really important to them about the holidays and how they would have wanted you to carry on, you have a really good basis to start building new rituals into your holiday. Maybe it is waking everyone up super early instead of your mom. Maybe instead of sitting quietly and looking at the newly decorated tree with your dad, everyone could share a memory they have of your him.
When you schedule with me, I will help you to process the mess of grief and guilt and emptiness you feel.
We will find the small moments of joy.
Joy in reminiscing, joy in sharing these new experiences with the rest of your family, and joy in making new memories.
Developing new ways to honor your loved one through the holidays can help you feel connected to the person you lost, the memories that matter, and the people who are still here. You can celebrate the holidays again, and I can help you get there in a way that feels respectful of your grief.