The holidays are a time to celebrate what we’re grateful for, but they can also be a difficult reminder of what we’ve lost and the people who are no longer with us. If this happens to be your story this year, know that you’re not alone. Every year many families find themselves struggling through the holidays following the loss of a loved one. Old traditions can be hard to keep up when someone is missing from the holiday dinner table.
As the winter holidays approach, remember that your celebration is your own, and it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. There is no right or wrong way to honor the people you love, and there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the things you are grateful for. Let your holiday be just what you need it to be this year.
If you’re worried about facing the holidays after a recent loss or hardship, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Don’t let grief be taboo
One of the most important gifts you and your family can give yourself this year is the space to be open and honest with each other, and the freedom to ask for the support you need. You don’t need to pretend that all is well and that this is business as usual. Acknowledge the elephant in the room. It’s OK to admit that you’re sad and that this will be hard.
Check in with each other, see how everyone is coping. What kind of support do they need? What kind of support do you need? Grieving during the holidays is difficult enough; treating it as a secret will only make it more difficult. Together you can make a plan to navigate the holiday by discussing ahead of time which traditions you want to keep, and which ones you’re worried about.
Celebrate however you feel like celebrating
Traditions get to evolve with us. Nowhere are they set in stone. They are ours to keep, or to change, or even to cancel altogether. Some families will choose to keep up with their old traditions, even if it’s hard, as a way to honor a loved one they’ve lost. Sometimes a tearful evening spent decorating the Christmas tree and drinking hot chocolate is just what we need. Other families may put some old traditions on hold this year, which is perfectly fine too. If it’s too difficult to make the cookies this year or sit down for the holiday meal, it’s OK to say, “Let’s take a break this year.” The cancellation doesn’t have to be permanent. The holidays will be back next year after all.
Some families find it important in their grieving processes to make new traditions as a gesture of turning the page. It’s OK if things just aren’t the same and old traditions feel out of place. Maybe this year, instead of decorating a tree, you’ll decide to go go-carting or see a movie. Indoor community swimming pools are usually nearly empty on Christmas Eve if you feel like a holiday dip. Many families create new traditions to honor the memories of their loved ones, like lighting a candle, or displaying a favorite photo, or dusting off the old family movies for a showing.
It’s hard to avoid the holidays when the TV is playing nonstop Christmas programming, and the department stores have brought out their tinsel and lights. And while all these reminders may make you want to lock yourself in your room until spring, keeping yourself moving and distracted will help pass the time more quickly. Grief takes time and work to process, but you don’t need to think about it every moment of the holiday season.
Now is a perfect time to take up a new hobby, or a holiday project. Look for chances to distract yourself in good company too. Maybe this means making meals with friends and family, or maybe it’s a trip to the museum or the theater or the basketball courts.
Don’t compare this holiday to others
If your holiday celebration isn’t as colorful as your friend’s or your neighbor’s, who cares? When we compare our holidays to somebody else’s holiday, we’re more likely to see our holiday for all the things it’s not. Keep reminding yourself that there is nothing your celebration has to look like or live up to—not your classmates’ holidays, and not your merrier holidays of years passed. When we let go of our expectations for what a celebration should look like, we free ourselves to appreciate it for just what it is.
How do you deal with grief and other emotional challenges during the holidays? What has worked for you? Join the conversation on social media using the hashtags #BeWell, #BeHeard, and #BeThere.