Getting Through December



Here are a few suggestions for getting through the holiday season, and please remember that grief, and holiday coping strategies, are deeply personal.

Cry if you want to cry. Your tears are the outward expression of the pain, sadness--and love--that you have inside. Tears may come when least expected or they may flow most of the time. In Roman times, tears were captured in small vials and treasured. Now they end up in a wadded tissue at the bottom of a wastebasket.

Most people are very uncomfortable with crying and will scurry for the Kleenex box at the first sign of trouble. They may interrupt you with a "there, there" which translates into Stop Crying Now! I learned to take a tissue, say thank you, blow my nose and keep crying. By doing so, I was inviting someone else to shed a tear, too.

Tears are part of the language of our deep loss. It takes great courage to be vulnerable. We take time out for coffee and a quick bite. We can also be kind to ourselves and take the time out to cry. Remember: if our tears bother others, it is their problem, not ours. You can be polite, or not; but wave them away, and please, cry if you want to without apology.

Do not allow others to cast your grief aside. Grieving is the most important work you can do when someone you love dies. Don't let anyone take your grief from you. Nobody expects a person who has undergone major surgery to bounce back the next day as if nothing happened. Yet when people experience traumatic personal loss, they are expected to do just that--get right on with the holiday business as usual, even while they are "bleeding to death" inside.

If you feel your friends are ignoring you, or dismissing your sadness as trivial, speak up! They can't read your mind. Be direct and let people know what is helpful and what is not. Tell them that you are hurting and that talking about the loss, or doing things differently during the holidays, is important to you. Someone you love has died and you are grieving. Do not cast your grief aside. Remember, too, that you have limited energy right now. Please don't waste it on dismissive or unhelpful people.

Misinformed friends can hurt you unknowingly with their words. Phrases such as "Keep your chin up" or "Get on with your life" diminish your significant loss. People offer tired clichés most often because they don't know what else to say. Commit this response to memory and use it the next time someone tries to "comfort" you during the holiday season by casting your grief aside: "I am sure you are trying to be helpful, but I don't find your words supportive because......" [fill in the blank].
True friends, those who really care about you, will thank you for your honesty and be relieved that you gave them some direction on how to help you. Treasure their friendships and use them for valuable support. Fair weather friends will get defensive and disappear.

Say your loved one's name out loud and stop the generic use of pronouns
. Soon after a loved one dies, family and friends start saying, "he died or she died" rather than "John died, or Carol died." A strange conspiracy of silence looms that suggests whatever you do, don't say the name of the deceased out loud or speak of the dead. Out of sight, out of mind.

As a griever, you have every right to challenge the use of impersonal pronouns. Your loved one has a name that you treasure! Deliberately say it: John loved the New Year's football games, or Carol loved Christmas Eve. Your free use of your loved one's name will encourage others to use it as well. As an unexpected bonus, you'll be setting an example that others will remember when their turn to grieve comes.

Don’t let the holidays overtake you. Plan how you want to spend the actual day. You may choose to work on Christmas Day, if you have this option, giving a coworker the opportunity to spend the holiday with his or her loved ones. Whatever you decide, let your family know in advance of your plans. See the next entry.

Expect criticism! Or at least raised eyebrows and editorial comments. Families may or may not be supportive of your grief style. Siblings will grieve differently following the death of a parent, or other sibling, because each of you had your own unique relationship with your deceased family member. Maybe you want to stay home or change how the family does things this year. Something is bound to confuse or annoy a family member or someone in your extended social network.

Perhaps your friends have not yet lost loved ones. Criticism is often based on ignorance or lack of perspective. Other people are just thoughtless clods. It may sound too simplistic, but sometimes the best thing to do is ignore the criticism and do what you need to do to take care of you. When you feel the pressure to "perform" this holiday season, remind yourself: I am grieving and I need to (blank) this year for me. I'll decide about next year when it is next year.

Don’t overextend yourself. You do not have to shop, bake, decorate, send cards, go to parties, or entertain, if you are not up to it. Observe your own quiet holiday. On this first Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Eve without your loved one, give yourself permission to take a break from all the fuss and use the time to grieve. Believe this in your heart: You do not owe anyone a reason for your grief or an explanation of your grieving style.

Think about the upcoming religious services. Will the sacred music of the season comfort or upset you? What do you believe will be the overall emotional effect? If you want to attend, sit in the back so that you can leave quietly if you become overwhelmed. Sometimes a church family offers valuable support, other times the sight of happy families is a brutal reminder of all that you have lost. Decide how much or how little to participate this first December without your loved one. You can always change your mind.

Contemplate the holiday invitations. "I cannot do this" will be on your lips a lot this month. Are the people who issued the invitation good friends or casual acquaintances? What is the tone or tenor of the party? Will it be quiet or raucous? Is it an intimate get-together or filled with people you barely know? If you decide to attend, drop-in events may be easier: you are free to arrive late and leave early.

Consider the possibility that no one is expecting you to be the life of the party, but they are letting you know that you are welcome to attend. More than once grievers have decided to put in an appearance and had a moment of unexpected tenderness from someone's kind remark or gesture of friendship. You never know where comfort resides. Listen to your grieving heart. You will know what you need to do, or not do, to take care of yourself this holiday season. 

Here's an interesting flip side to the party invitations: they may stop coming because some hostesses will find you too emotionally unpredictable. You might, heaven forbid, cause a scene. What if you break down and start crying all over the cheese and crackers? Yes, it's shallow, but very few hosts want a party pooper at their holiday festivities.

If you were part of a couple, and now you are alone, you may not get invited and it won't be an oversight. In many ways, sad but true, it is a couples kind of world. Yes, the loss of an invitation may hurt you deeply, even wound. But think of it this way: trying to fit into the seasonal frivolities of others may frustrate, sadden, anger, or wound you even more.

Sometimes holiday traditions are comforting after a death and sometimes they are not. Use old holiday rituals, the ones you enjoyed with your deceased loved one, only if they comfort you.

Think about creating
new traditions, as well. Because new traditions can be so different from the old ones, they will have no painful memories of how you shared them with your loved one. Traditions can be stored, recycled or trashed. Give yourself permission to at least ask: What if we did (blank) this year?


Be careful with money. In the season of spending, you may be uncertain of your new financial situation. If the death was recent, you may find yourself going overboard in an attempt to generate some holiday spirit.

Or, you may be tempted to have a "let's make it up to them for all they've been through" season of gift giving. If this happens, stop a moment to examine the motives behind your spending. Ask yourself: What do I really need this Christmas to balance my life?

It is common in grief to lack the energy or desire to shop. If this is true for you, but you would still like to give something to others, go to Wrestling with Holiday Traditions. Scroll about half way down the page for suggestions that combine mourning with holiday giving.

My own grief has reminded me that I cannot buy happiness. I find myself looking for thoughtful ways to give of my time, rather than giving "stuff." I am doing things I probably would not do if I were not grieving, such as inviting a widow to a dinner that I served on the Christmas china my mother gave me. The widow was grateful and I experienced unexpected tenderness.

Imagine. Advent is a season of longing and longing is a notable part of grief. If your holiday memories are painful because of your loved one’s negative behavior, take a moment to imagine how it could have been different. What would you like to have happened?

Write your perfect Christmas Day on paper. Read it out loud. What will you say to your deceased loved one? Imagine what he or she will say in return. This will not change the past, but it may help you heal hurts and misunderstandings so that you can create a better future.

Practice balanced recall. Even the most cherished and loving relationships are complex. To love someone profoundly is to know that person in his or her weakness and strength. Would you want the dear one who has died to be without flaws? Such a person would bear little resemblance to the one you love. No more than that person would want perfection from you. You wouldn't be recognizable, either. Love makes all kinds of allowances...and keeps on loving.

My father was irritable during the month of December. He didn't like the spending or the glitter of a material Christmas. His dark mood often cast a shadow over our festive events. Growing up, and for a long time after, when I thought of Dad and Christmas, I thought of Scrooge.

Yet, if I practice balanced recall, I remember other things about Dad and Christmas: I remember him trudging in the snow to the back of the farm to cut a perfect Christmas tree for us; I remember his fine tenor voice when he sang Adeste Fidelis entirely in Latin; I remember his delight in The Chipmunk Song and how he played it over the loud speaker for the children at the grade school where he taught on the last day before Christmas vacation.

I remember him reading me Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus and telling me that O. Henry's Gift of the Magi was the finest Christmas story ever written; I remember him reciting A Visit from St. Nicholas by heart; I most remember him carrying me upstairs to bed one Christmas Eve because I had fallen asleep by the tree waiting for Santa.

As a child, I had a limited vision of my father. Adult grief has given me a broader perspective. A few years after his death in 1994, when the flurry of our relationship had settled, I came to understand the goodness and difficulty we were in each other's lives and to appreciate the deep love underneath it all.

Take care of yourself. There is much we don't know about the relationship between mind, body and spirit but one thing is certain: we are at greater risk for accident, injury, infection and disease after suffering a serious loss.

Destructive behavior, such as excessive alcohol or drug intake, prolongs grief and makes the loss even more painful over the long haul. Prolonged grief can cause reactive depression.
Physical ailments and insomnia are normal expressions of grief, but please see a health professional if you are having troublesome symptoms.
Take the time to nurture yourself. Perhaps you have been so busy helping other family members grieve that you have ignored your own needs. Or, you've been tangled in the legal and financial responsibilities of settling the estate. Whatever your circumstances, you may be compromising your own health through neglect. Whether it is enjoying a long hot soak, turning off the cell phone to read a book, or going for a walk, please take the time to nurture yourself. 

And related to taking care of yourself, laugh if the spirit moves you. Try not to worry about the comments of others if they see you enjoying yourself. No one can cry twenty-four hours a day and laughter is as healing as tears.

Go to next page: We Always...Wrestling with Holiday Traditions

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How complicated and individual mending is,
the time required for healing
cannot be measured against any fixed calendar
Mary Jane Moffat
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