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Holidays After Losing A Loved One - Finding the Strength to Deal with the Pain

Updated on September 10, 2012
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

Finding Ways to Reduce the Pain Means Not Needing Quite As Much Strength

After we lose a loved one holidays (like life in general does) change in some ways and remain the same in other ways. Like life in general, holidays can, of course, be extremely difficult and painful soon after a loss; but in time (again like life) they again bring the joy they once did. Getting through the holidays (especially Christmas) that first year or two after a loss is essentially trying to figure out how to celebrate holidays while going through fresh grief. Anyone going dealing with recent loss of a loved one needs to keep in mind that grief is a matter of having a broken heart; and just as one cannot expect to function as he always does with, say, a broken bone; the grieving individual must realize that he shouldn't expect himself to function "as always" during the holidays.

One way to think of getting through the holidays is this: If we had a broken leg or broken back and had been invited to a big event (maybe an anniversary party or graduation party), we would probably plan to attend but show up in a wheelchair, realizing we would not be dancing. It's the same kind of thing when it comes to holidays and broken hearts. We would know that there would be other events at which we would dance. Family and friends would be happy to have us attend even if we couldn't dance. In general, everyone's expectations would be lowered. With regard to finding the strength to deal with the pain, the first step is to find ways to keep the pain from being worse than it needs to be. Taking the party analogy a step farther, imagine how the person with a broken bone would unnecessarily make the pain worse by just trying to dance. Accepting that a broken heart essentially means a "compromised emotional state" is less likely to bring on the unnecessary pain of trying to make the holiday what it has always been.

We have little choice but to "attend" a holiday that comes around in spite of the fact that we wish it wouldn't, so we need to realize that we will be attendance but we won't be "dancing" - and for this year (and maybe next) that has to be alright. My parents are both gone now. My father died on Thanksgiving, and my mother died that day before Thanksgiving. You can probably imagine what a cloud that put over all future Thanksgivings for us - but each year we continued to celebrate the holiday, ignoring the dark cloud that loomed over it. Eventually, the cloud diminished.

The first Christmas after each death was weeks after the death, so those we just got through those very first Christmases with numbness. With the Christmases that were closer to the year anniversaries, though, it was also difficult. One reason was that (at least for me) it's around a year that the numbness had worn off, and when I was faced with really feeling something I started to feel it all as if for the first time almost. I believe Nature designs us to become numb for quite a while as a way of helping us get through the earliest, most difficult, weeks/months and allowing us to postpone actually processing the realities of our loss later (we have become more accustomed to the them).

Whether it's Thanksgiving or Christmas, with each year the holidays become less painful, but it does take time. Know that the holidays will have a cloud over them, and try to find things that will keep you from paying much attention that "cloud". Christmas, of course, is most often the most difficult holiday to get through.

What I've learned is this: People who have lost a loved one over the last year or so should not expect much from Christmas for a year or a two at least. Stay away from particularly serious and holy Christmas music and events that usually stir up emotions or that sense of Christmas holiness or spirit. They can just be too emotionally moving and get you and thinking. Try to listen to the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Winter Wonderland kind of music - or stay away from music altogether if possible.

Decide not to expect this year to be like others. Think of it - right upfront - as a Christmas from which you will need to kind of remove yourself from in some ways. Put up a few decorations if you want. If you don't feel like it, don't. Decorations rub salt into the wound for some people. Others may feel that putting up some decorations is something they will do "for the deceased loved one".

Think of Christmas as a dinner and the chance to give some gifts, but consciously try to keep from feeling any Christmas spirit or feeling the day at all. Put up a wall, so to speak. Keep in mind that your loved one probably would want you to get through the day as best as you can, so if you have to decide to try not to think about her/him as much as possible that's probably what s/he would want you to do.

Think of Christmas as that event that you'll have little choice but to attend, even if you cannot possibly "dance".

Chances are at a couple of times during the day you or someone else in the family may be struck by something that brings tears. That's ok. Sometimes leaving the group to let a few tears fall in the bathroom happens. When there are others around for whom you want to "be strong", the leaving-the-room approach can be helpful. On the other hand, if it turns out that one person's tears become the tears of a few others as well, everyone needs to keep in mind that such emotions are to be expected. As they have in the past, the tears will end (often as quickly as they began).

Let the holidays this year be completely different from other years because, again, you can go back to your traditions next year or the year after. This is a different kind of Christmas, and you need to do what it will take to get through it most comfortably. If you have a chance to go to any parties go. It's good to get out where people are being lighthearted and laughing. You probably won’t really feel up to going anywhere, and you’ll probably think there’s no point; but if you’re at all open to the idea of going, just go for a little while at least. It’s not disrespectful to go to a little Christmas party soon after losing someone. It’s a chance to get out and talk to socialize a little, even if you’re not the life of the party.

It’s best to stay away from alcohol as much as possible (particularly if you’re the type who gets gloomy and more likely to cry after a couple of drinks).When you’re trying to get through the first holidays after losing someone close it’s a time when you need to keep your emotions under control as much as possible. You don’t need your inhibitions lowered right now. People at the party will know you just lost someone. Nobody will be expecting you to dance on the tables. It’s perfectly acceptable to just go, have some holiday party food, and talk with a few people.

Stay away from the activities that you always shared with your loved one. Don’t go to places where you went with him/her this year. Decide to keep the holidays simple. If you can eat dinner at someone else's house or spend time someone other than where you usually do, do that. Again, you can go back to the old ways of doing things next year.

Keep in mind that these holidays are just days. They start at midnight and end at midnight, and there's sleeping during a few of those hours. Morning isn't usually as bad because it's not when most people have started their traditional dinner/festivities, so all you really need to get through is afternoons and early evenings.

The year my mother died my brother had already gotten the stuff to make Thanksgiving dinner. Because of my mother I had my younger kids stay with their other grandmother for Thanksgiving. My sister and her family stayed in their own house. My brother cooked dinner for me, my oldest son, and himself. We didn't get out any fancy dishes. We just sat together and ate the dinner. It was pretty pathetic feeling, but we got through it. My brother's reasoning was that since he had the food we may as well eat it. We did nothing else that Thanksgiving, but it passed.

Losing a loved one is an awful thing, and it takes surprisingly long to really get over it (as much as you ever will), but it's also often surprising how we actually get through those first holidays by going through the motions, keeping things simple, going out to be with friends as much as possible, and generally waking up the next day to realize that it was only 24 hours; and it is now over.

So, keep things simple. Do things differently. Stay away from things that you know will make you feel like Christmas. Turn Christmas (and Thanksgiving) into "toned down days" and do the things that you think will make it easier on yourself and other family members. It can help to just decide this will be a "lost" Christmas in some ways. Normal life and normal holidays will return, but this isn't the year for that.

Perhaps most important is this: Try not to be spending the days and weeks leading up to the holidays worrying about how you'll get through them. There was once a time when you couldn't imagine getting through losing the person you've recently lost, and now - difficult as grieving is - you've seen that you got through the actual loss. Again, even a big holiday like Christmas (with all the hype and decorations and preparations leading up to it) lasts only 24 hours. The days and weeks leading up to it are really just ordinary days. If at all possible, don't let Christmas reach beyond its allotted 24 hours this year by worrying about how you'll get through it long before it arrives.

On Thanksgiving this year, November 27, my mother will have been gone now for twelve years. This past Saturday, November 22, marked the 35th anniversary of my father's death. I learned a long time ago that trying not to think about the person we've recently lost doesn't mean not thinking about them later, daily, or forever. It just means setting aside thoughts of them (if at all possible) on those first few holidays when thinking of them is just so painful.

To anyone who will go through the holidays this year with a broken heart, keep in mind that your loved one would want you to do what it takes to get yourself through the day as well as possible. S/he does not have to get through the holiday the way you do. Imagine what you would want for that person if s/he survived you, and let that be your guide.

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