The holidays are rapidly approaching. As everyone seems to gear up with holiday cheer, the season marks a looming sore spot for those who are grieving. Whether you grieve the loss of a loved one or the loss of a marriage, grief is the unwelcome guest at every holiday occasion for some of us.
I’m all too familiar with this, unfortunately. Five years ago, I lost my dad to melanoma. That holiday season began all the “firsts” without him. Each ripped the proverbial bandage from a very fresh wound. Last year was my first year as a single mom at the tail end of a divorce. That ushered in an entirely new sense of loss than what I experienced with my father’s death.
Until you are in those shoes, it’s hard to truly empathize with those who dread the holidays and wince at the thought of enduring two months of holiday cheer. Grief so fresh causes you to gaze around at the hullabaloo and wonder: “How can these people feel so excited when I am just so, so sad?”
Hence, my tips for getting through the holidays while grieving:
This might be the toughest thing to do. We naturally cling to those old traditions — whether going to the Christmas Eve service at church or decorating the tree on a certain day. For me, those traditions had become sacred. Their existence was attached to memories that I wasn’t ready to process. I decided to create some new traditions and do something totally different. I still haven’t attended a Christmas Eve service since Dad died. My memories of the last service I went to are wrapped in tears as he and I wept quietly during the final rendition of Silent Night, clinging to each other knowing it would be our last together. I may venture back this year. But it has taken me five Christmases to get there. Give yourself permission to veer off the usual path this year. I’ve made some beautiful memories with my mom, sister, and family these last few holidays. We played board games in our matching pajamas with the kids and cooked a big meal at home instead.
If not for my kids, I would not have put up a single decoration last year. I wanted to fall asleep and wake up on the other side of New Years. Going through the motions of a bright and cheery Christmas sounded miserable. With them being so young, that just wasn’t an option. But I store all of the old decorations and splurged on a small trip to At Home. We decorated a tree that felt more me. I opted for simple glass ornaments and burlap flowers rather than my traditional red and gold decor. It was simple, but beautiful — just like my life had become. If you are in a position to not decorate this year, and you don’t want to? Don’t.
Being a solemn wanderer in a world of holiday cheer requires enough emotional energy. Setting up a tree isn’t going to do much other than deplete you even more. If you have kids and decorating is part of the gig, feel them out to see if they are open to some new decorations. I purchased two small, three-foot trees for each of them. They put their sentimental ornaments there rather than on the family tree. That seemed to satisfy them.
Some days, surrounding yourself with friends and family offers comfort, laughter, and a chance to escape the pain. Other days, being around people just makes us painfully aware of what—or who—is not there. Last year, seeing families carry on their traditions hurt. I missed something that had become precious to me the last ten years. Seeing my friends gather around the table with their fathers drove a knife through the gaping hole in my heart that first year. I knew that, in those moments, I just needed to be alone. It’s not selfish. It’s self-care. We cannot give to others when our own buckets are empty. Being able to intuit these moments is a healthy trait.
This is especially difficult for moms who are used to giving to everyone else and coming up empty when it’s our turn. Give yourself permission to say “yes.” Say yes to the pedicure; yes to the long, hot bath; yes to the Netflix marathon. What brings you comfort and joy? Do that thing. After the kids get on the bus, if you want to lay in bed and cry for an hour, give yourself space to do that. Last year, I saved a little money to take a trip after my kids left with my ex on Christmas morning. I knew the void that would exist. So I packed up the tree, threw my suitcase in the car, and camped in Florida for a while. The sunshine was healing to my soul. And the change of scenery was a welcome distraction from the emptiness of my house.
I am the world’s worst with pain—both the physical and emotional varieties. My natural tendency is to run from it using distraction of pretty much any kind. Even worse, I used to pretend like it wasn’t there. I forced myself on under the guise of nobly “sucking it up.” If you are facing grief this season, especially a “first,” acknowledging the loss and its effect is essential to surviving the holidays. It hurts. It sucks. And no amount of tree decorating, party-going, holiday caroling, or booze drinking will fill that void. The sooner we lean into pain, the sooner we come out of it stronger. And I can promise you—the more we choose not to acknowledge its existence, the harder we crash when it catches up to us.
If you are not in a space of grief this holiday season, give your loved ones a safe space and the grace to retreat. Forcing them out isn’t the way to help them heal. Acknowledge their pain by giving them room to grieve. It’s the best thing you can do. Check in often. Offer to help with gift wrapping or decorating. Send them some yummy food. Put a card in their mailbox or give them a pedicure gift certificate. But above all, understand that everyone processes grief differently. Try to tune into how they grieve.
If you are the person to whom this is directed? Let me say this: I am incredibly sorry for your loss—no matter what shape it takes. And let me also encourage you that this too will pass. And a new year beckons that offers healing and comfort. As alone as we may feel in a time of holiday cheer, it does get better.