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Preparing for a Significant Family Holiday Without You…

Preparing for a Significant Family Holiday Without You…

by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC

After a loved one dies, we can find ourselves feeling overwhelmed by the notion of preparing for a major holiday without them.  There are multiple secondary losses we feel because that person isn’t here to help us purchase a tree, put up lights or decorations, bake, get the family photo for the holiday card, etc.  You get it, you feel it, and it can be deeply gut wrenching.  This is a natural response, especially around this “most wonderful time of the year.”  You may even feel like, “why bother?”

We bother because holidays offer a time to express that life mattered for our loved one who died.  We bother because this time offers an opportunity to reminisce about life together and the precious memories and traditions shared during this time.  Sad – yes, painful – at times, yet also a time of gratitude or joy over having shared life together too.  The holidays or special gatherings as family, are part of the blending the loss into our lives as we keep moving forward, finding ways to remember our loved one while embarking on the rest of our life’s journey.  This year, holidays can be even further complicated by the reality that we should not be gathering in large groups due to the pandemic. This feels like one more layer of loss upon so many other losses, and, unlike the summer months, it is too frigid and dark to meet outdoors which can produce a greater sense of sadness and loneliness.

What Will Celebrating the Holidays Look Like This Year?

How do we go about celebrating the holidays in the midst of all this chaos and turmoil in our world, in our lives, and in our hearts, with the constant reminders of the ideal family holiday?  I think of the Dr. Suess movie, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, when all the decorations, gifts and food are all taken, yet the Who’s in Whoville still gather to celebrate the season, with joy and all together.  What will the season, the holiday be like for you:

  1. After the death of your loved one
  2. As you begin to prepare for a significant family holiday
  3. In a world where larger gathering indoors are discouraged, where we cannot celebrate with the family elders

Two strategies to avoid during this time of year are: 1. Keeping everything the same and, 2.  Escaping either physically or through substance abuse.  We cannot keep everything the same, by trying to do so, we set expectations that cannot be met, things are not the same.  Escaping, delays the acknowledging of grief, hiding from it, yet it is still with us.

Tips For Preparing For This Year’s Holidays

What is left to help us through grief, what are some of our own strengths?  Consider things that have helped before.  One idea is to make a list of the people around you, family, friends, neighbors, church members, etc.  Around each name place the letter L, D, and R’s.  L= listeners, those people who will listen and allow you to say, think and feel what you need.  D = doers, who are the people who help mow lawn, shovel snow, fix, cook, they are the helpers.  The R = respite.  Grief is hard work and we can’t grieve all day-long, it is too exhausting.  We need the R’s to help us be social, to go to the movies or out to dinner with us. They don’t want to talk about the grief but can help in social support.  We need all three types of people in our lives after a death.

What rituals will you keep, what might you suspend or adapt?

This holiday season, practice the 3 C’s.  Choose, Communicate, Compromise.  Choose what you want to do this holiday, where you want to be.  Do things a little differently.  New meanings can arise from the holiday such as making charitable donations in a loved one’s memory.  Identify what needs to be done and how will it get done, who will put up a tree or write the holiday cards.  Who will you be with, if you will gather safely, and when will you leave.  The holiday is emotionally painful and exhausting.  Considering determining how long you will stay at a gathering, and let the people know.  If you want to stay longer than you originally considered, that’s fine too.  The bereaved ought to make the choice when they want to leave, not the others you are with.  Communicate these changes/wishes.  Compromise.

Tips for Grieving Children

Be aware of children and their grief during the holidays.  There is a normal amount of “self-centeredness” of younger children, consider the importance of the holiday for them.  Understand that adolescents and children may displace anger.  Consider creating rituals and memorials.  Acknowledge their losses and recognize the losses that they may experience through the holidays.

Some activities that can be helpful to children is creating memory boxes, a charitable or memorial activity such as planting a tree, donating, etc.  Perhaps make or wrap a gift for the deceased. Personal actions, such as baking cookies for nurses who cared for Grandma, shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, inviting a lonely neighbor over for the holiday are other ideas.

How well parents function is a major predictor of how well children will do.  Parents, model your grief and coping, and take care of your child; do not expect them to take care of you.  If your tears come during gift opening, tell your children, “daddy would have loved watching you open this gift.”  Reach out to extended family and your intimate network for support.

Ways to Create Ritual

Rituals which acknowledge your loved one, during the holiday gathering are important and healing.  Spend a moment to acknowledge the deceased.  Consider making a toast, offer a prayer, make a mention, share a memory.  Children can decorate a place mat to use at the table to honor the life of those not with us.  The ritual of 4 candles invites sharing of 1 memory of the deceased as each candle is lit, providing meaning and uniting us with our deceased loved ones, who are always in our hearts.  Consider that the first 3 ornaments hung on the tree each year are memorial ornaments.  Create a special ornament to hang on the tree or wreath.  Visit a cemetery this year and decorate that memorial space. 

What is one ritual or way you have developed to honor the memory of your loved one while celebrating this holiday?  Please take a few moments to share that with others here.

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