Grief and the Holidays

By Holly Speaks

[December 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage | By Holly Speaks, guest columnist]

Holly Speaks, MSW

There is no right or wrong way to grieve; it’s very personal. The reality of grief is that what has been lost cannot be restored, no matter what anyone says or does. Going through a loss may be one of the most distressing times in your life. You are expected to live your life in what is called a “new normal.” Every day, you’re assaulted by reminders that your loved one is gone. It can be their empty seat at the breakfast table or not being able to talk to them or care for them anymore.

The “year of firsts” without your loved one will be the hardest and comes at a time when you have to actively and consciously navigate as best as you can. Of course, there will be “minefields” of unexpected things that will trigger your grief. The way you cope with all of these individual experiences will be as individual as you are. You have to find your own path, which can be especially difficult during holidays, anniversaries, or birthdays, the “special days” filled with memories and traditions.

Generally, holidays are time spent with our families and loved ones, but since one of the people that you love the most is gone, your grief and loneliness may be more intense during the holidays, and the need for support may be more necessary.

Your loved one had relationships with others that left a mark on their lives, too. You might ask other family members and friends how they would like to plan special days. Encourage the conversation and allow room for resistance, or even refusal. This helps to determine how the people in your life who are also grieving that same loss are coping, and where they are in their own process.

You may all be able to incorporate elements of what each person’s vision of the holidays looks like. Family gathering ideas could be: saying a prayer before a meal, lighting a candle in memory of your loved one, including their favorite dish in the holiday meal, making a donation to a charity in your loved one’s name, creating a memorial ornament, or putting up a photo of your loved one.

Don’t let grief keep you home and alone during this special time. If you have to, force yourself to stay involved in the holidays as a symbol of life continuing on. You can’t stop the rest of the world from playing Christmas music, putting up decorations, and wishing you “Happy Holidays.” Only those who are close to you will know you’re suffering from a deep sadness. The holidays may feel pointless, as if you’re going through the motions. Go through them anyway.

This may be a time and opportunity for you to review family traditions, decide which to keep and which to let go, and maybe even make new ones. If you usually prepare a very large meal, for example, let family and friends help and bring side dishes. If hosting a large gathering doesn’t seem right this year, try volunteering at a local community event. Grief may fade for a little while as you stay busy and help others. You could also celebrate the holidays on days that are not on the actual calendar days. Or, if you really can’t handle the holidays, give yourself permission to skip them altogether this first year.

You can’t turn grief on and off like a light bulb. It’s okay to change your mind and leave an event, even if you just got to someone’s house, or even if you planned the whole thing. You have permission to change your mind because there may not be others living in a grief state as you are. Others may join in your plans, but remember they are allowed to express their grief as well. They deserve the right to decline and to not participate. Additionally, sadness, tempers, and old issues can resurface. Grief and death don’t always bring out the best in us, and if you’re grieving, your coping skills aren’t really the best, either.

The holidays are just days on the calendar, but they’re still a part of your human grief journey. Emotions don’t take a holiday. Whatever you decide to do or not to do—participate in or not, or start your own traditions—pace yourself. Check in with your heart and spirit about what you need at any given moment.

Please be gentle with yourself, and protect yourself from the judgment of the “should do’s.” It’s certain that these special days will never be the same after your loss as they were before, but, in time, most people are able to again find meaning in holiday traditions, whether done in the same ways or different ones as the holiday spirit returns. *

Holly L. Speaks, MSW, is a local psychotherapist who specializes in bereavement and couples counseling, serving the Montrose, Colorado, and surrounding areas. She has worked with patients in local hospitals, hospices, rehabilitation care centers, and nursing homes, and has been involved in child victim advocacy. Learn more about her here: