The holiday season can be particularly hard to handle when you’ve lost someone close to you. When Michael H.’s mother, Judy, passed away, he found himself dreading the time of year he used to enjoy most—the holiday season. “When December came around, I felt as if my family and friends expected me to be healed, as though the season itself were supposed to be enough to make me stop missing my mom,” Michael said.
For the millions of Americans who have suffered the recent loss of a loved one, the holidays can be more sorrowful than joyful. Emotions such as loneliness, anger and grief can easily overtake the spirit of thanksgiving and cheer that are the usual hallmarks of the holiday season. What’s important to remember, according to grief management experts, is that these emotions are normal and not at all uncommon.
Whether this is your 1st, 2nd, 6th or even 10th holiday without your loved one, there are several ways you can manage your grief while still celebrating the season.
Here are 5 tips for managing grief during the holidays:
1. Stay or go—it’s up to you
There’s no rule that dictates how you need to spend the holidays, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking care of your needs. Understand that it’s okay to choose to stay home alone with your memories if attending the annual party is too painful for you. Conversely, if the company of others is just what you need to alleviate feelings of loneliness or “difference” during the holidays, allow yourself to attend and actually enjoy yourself. You deserve it.
2. Play it by ear
When it comes to those parties, don’t create additional stress for yourself by committing to accept or decline an invitation too far in advance. Instead, be honest with others about your feelings. Explain that the holidays can be difficult for you and that you hope the host or hostess will understand if you make your decision the day of the party.
3. Change the tradition
If the traditional family get-together will just be “too hard” or “too different” without your loved one this year, change the location, time or type of celebration. A change may lessen the pain of old memories, and encourage the start of new ones. For example, if your home has traditionally been the hub of holiday activity, consider changing the venue. With the loss of a loved one, you may prefer to enjoy the party as a guest rather than a host.
4. Include your lost loved one in celebrations
When the absence of a loved one feels so obvious, don’t ignore it. Instead, embrace it and find a new way to keep your loved one involved in your family’s holiday celebration. “That first Christmas was the hardest,” Michael remembers. “Now we have a new family tradition. Before the presents are handed out, we each go around in a circle and share a memory of Judy. That’s our present to her, to keep her included in our family celebration,” he explains.
5. Donate a gift in their honor
If it’s too hard to exclude your loved one from your shopping list this holiday, don’t. This helped Michael cope with the absence of his mother in more recent years. “I was shopping and kept seeing things I knew she would have loved. At first, seeing those items was a sad reminder that she was gone. But then I had the idea to buy her a present and give it to someone in need. I wrapped it and put it under the tree and then donated it to a non-profit gift drive in her honor. It was actually cathartic,” he explains. “I did it again this year. It feels good to honor her memory while helping someone else too,” he says.
Missing loved ones during the holidays is natural, and how you choose to cope may vary year to year and change as time goes by. However you decide to cope, grief experts agree that it’s important to communicate your emotions to family and friends. Too often, grieving widows or widowers avoid talking about the deceased to appear “strong” for their children and grandchildren. At the same time, those kids and grandkids are afraid to bring up grandpa for fear of upsetting grandma. The reality is, everybody wants to talk about him.
So talk. Speaking about your loved ones and sharing memories can often ease the pain of holiday gatherings for those who grieve while keeping loved ones close to your heart this holiday season.