Tuesday, December 1, 2009


During the holidays, grief-filled joy and joy-filled grief are normal emotions for those of us who have lost a child or loved one. Just as there is no one way to experience our loss, there is no one way to find our way through the holidays and the December Holidays, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza can be the most difficult holidays. Yes, December can be difficult despite holiday sales, decorations, advertisements -everyone seems so happy and cheerful - but for those grieving, it's easy to feel alone.

It's precisely at these happy times that the loss of our loved one can be felt the strongest. We remember only too well who is missing. Whether our loss was recent or whether it occurred many years ago, we are constantly surrounded by sights and sounds that trigger memories of holidays past, and wracked with dreams of what might have been. Holidays involve expectations about getting together with family, about special meals or special gifts, and special traditions. Even when we find a way to cope with everyday life, the holiday season brings a renewed sense of these dreadful feelings of grief.

No matter how much we surround ourselves with the closeness of family and friends, it's impossible to forget the memories of past holidays when our loved ones were here. And impossible not to wonder what the present holidays would be like if our loved ones had not been taken from us. What can we do?

Yes, there will be feelings of sadness and loss, as well as memories which may be happy, but poignant. Mixtures of emotions are often all we have. To honor them by giving them expression is a path to healing.

Even if those around you are not able to drop their expectations that you will be appropriately "cheerful," you can change your expectations for yourself. Refusing an invitation, or accepting one with the up-front agreement that you will be leaving early without public announcement or fanfare (or fuss) is another way to set boundaries for yourself; to give you the time and space to do what feels right for you.

Without warning, memories of special traditions with our child or loved one can be triggered: their favorite music, ornaments, foods, drinks, activities. Be sure to allow yourself time to deal with these memories, journaling or talking to someone about them can help; the sooner you acknowledge them, the sooner the pain will dissipate.

If sadness is present, let yourself cry. If anger is present, write down the angry words. Once expressed, those feelings often dissipate. Put a soft cloth over your face, rest your body on your bed, and start whispering "no, no, no, no...." See what emotions come out. It's an experiment. If it helps dissolve your pain, do it whenever you need, and watch yourself get stronger with time!

Finding new traditions, from baking a new type of cookie, to attending an new afternoon matinee, or attending a different church service or function - are all ways for you to accept your loss and make the holiday yours, and not just giving in to the wishes of others. The act of choosing something different is healing and shows that you are claiming power over your situation.

Select a candle in your loved one's favorite color and scent. Place it in a special area of your home and light it at a significant time throughout the holidays, signifying the light of the love that lives on in your heart

Shakespeare once said, “Give sorrow words…” Write an “un-sent letter” to your loved one. expressing what you are honestly feeling toward him or her at this moment. After you compose the letter, you may decide to place it in a book, album or drawer in your home, leave it at a memorial site, throw it away, or even burn it and let the ashes rise symbolically

Decide and announce how you want to celebrate the holidays. This will go a long way to free you from an unnecessary sense of having failed to please those around you and meeting others expectation. This means not only the expectations of the living, but also those often projected on your love one who has died. Well meaning family may even tell you that the one you loved and lost would 'want you to be happy,' do what’s best for you. Joy will return in time, but all you have to do now is acknowledge and accept the feelings you are having – with no apologies.


You can help family and friends to alter their expectations of you by releasing them from the responsibility of SEEING to it that you have a good time. You might do something symbolic yet tangible to respect their good intention yet get yourself off the hook of doing things they choose for you.

Knowing how much time you feel you want to spend with others and how much time you want to have to yourself can also be crucial. Make plans which will give you the balance between private time and social that feels right. If at all possible, choose to be with those who are best able to support you at this time in your life.

Be pro-active: Ask a friend or family member to tell people you'd rather not see during this time, or send them a holiday card – asking them to contact you "after the holidays". Most will get the message. Don’t hesitate to “take a rain check” on unwanted invitations – thank them graciously, and tell you hope they will invite you again in the months to come when you might be better company. And remember it is alright for you to change your mind at the last minute; people who know and love you will understand.

Source: Health, Mind & Body, November 2007

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