Coping with Grief and The Holidays

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Anticipating the “first Christmas” without my husband produced a lot of anxiety within me. I remember doing last-minute errands on Christmas Eve, one stop included picking up a cake from Magnolia Bakery. My husband loved cake and sweets and getting a cake from this bakery had become a holiday tradition for us. On the first Christmas Eve, my son and his girlfriend were coming to pick me up, as it was my last stop before I went back home. There was a light snow falling and I sat outside the bakery waiting for my son to arrive. Suddenly, as I felt the snow on my cheeks and watched the Christmas Eve last minute hustle as couples walked by arm in arm, with packages and shopping bags, I began to silently weep. The tears came down my cheeks and seemed to freeze on my face. I couldn’t believe that I was about to celebrate Christmas without my husband and I was missing him terribly as I thought about how he loved the holiday and how he was no longer here to celebrate. I wanted to shout, “Hey, how can you people keep going on with your lives and my husband is no longer here?” I didn’t however, but went home, put last-minute touches on Christmas dinner, wept and wept, eventually falling into bed, silently wishing that the next day would whisk by in an instant. That first Christmas was small and we prayed a prayer of hope and healing, while acknowledging our loss. This would remain a part of a new ritual incorporated into each succeeding year. Thereafter, the pain lessened little by little for me, brand new traditions were born, now including many more who have become a part my of my “family of friends” as well as  my own immediate family.

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The first holidays after the loss of a loved one are referred to as the firsts. No, I didn’t coin that word, but a few months after my father had died, I spoke to a couple and told them I was about to celebrate my first Thanksgiving without my dad. The wife said to me, “Oh you’re about to experience the firsts”. Since then, I’ve come to refer to the firsts as the first holidays in a succession of holidays that occur in the first year after the death of a spouse or any loved one. Those who are left must figure out how to manage each occasion, now alone. Every occasion takes on a new meaning, even the less significant ones underscore the absence of the lost loved one.

After my husband Chuck died, I had to face all of the upcoming occasions of our lives, previously celebrated together, alone. There were also several new milestones that he would not be a part of. While I may now continue to share these holidays with friends and family, pangs of sorrow sometimes appear out of the blue and I just have to roll with it. Grief is like that as it comes in waves. But as time goes on one learns to manage those unexpected emotional lows as it becomes a part of our “new normal”.

The bereaved approach these annual holidays with much anxiety and trepidation, especially the first ones in the year that they have experienced the loss of a loved one. Some may feel anticipatory anxiety, while others have feelings of dread and foreboding in anticipation of the upcoming occasions.

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I too, felt some of these feelings after losing my husband and Thanksgiving and Christmas loomed like monsters in the distance. I did manage to get through each occasion as best as I could, and found that each subsequent year got a tiny bit easier.

Here are a few tips on how one can cope with grief and the holidays:

  1. Don’t be Hard on Yourself– keep in mind that the holidays will be different and if you’re hosting, ask others to pitch in and help, thus picking up the slack of not having your spouse to assist.
  2. Go along with the Day’s Activities– Avoid isolating yourself, join family and friends as much as you’re able. But if you decide that the day gets a little bit overwhelming then retreat to another room away from the maddening crowd. There you can take a breather from the stress of the occasion. If you’re not hosting, and  decide to leave early that’s fine too. Do what you can and remember you are in charge of how you want to spend the holidays. Also keep in mind grief comes in waves and any number of sights, sounds, and things said can catch you off guard emotionally. If some try to force you to stay, bless them, wish them well and leave anyway. If folks feel upset or insulted, that’s on them as you are only in charge of yourself and your well being. Follow your heart and your mood and just go with your flow. 

3. Change-You may want to consider changing the way that you celebrate. Incorporating new rituals, eliminating old ones that cause distress, is a good way to ease yourself into the newness of handling the holidays without your spouse or loved one.

4. Scale Down– Many occasions entail several days of celebrations. Try to pick and choose where and what you will attend. You want to conserve your energy to prevent becoming overwhelmed and exhausted. New Year’s Eve might be a great time to chill and relax at home, especially since the celebratory activities may not fit your mood. However, a New Year’s Day brunch, or open house may seem less overwhelming and easier to navigate.

In this time of the pandemic, social upheaval, social distancing and loss, we will all be scaling down this holiday season. To protect ourselves and others, we may not be able to have the family gatherings that we’re used to having. Some of you, sadly, may have not been able to share the last moments of a beloved family member who came down with COVID-19. Honoring our lost loved ones during this rare time in history, beckons us to create new and oftentimes unconventional ways of including them in our celebrations. During such a difficult moment in our lives we can create ways of seeing each other via ZOOM, and other similar platforms. We can share pictures and stories with family and friends, while still connecting with loved ones still here. Remember all life has value and no one has a right to put any interest above preserving lives. Now that people feel more comfortable about gathering with others who are  vaccinated, we can begin to resume Holiday traditions in person, always mindful of new rituals that continue to keep others safe.

5. Sit This Year Out- If the loss is fresh, and you feel as if you cannot bear going through the stressful rituals customary for your holiday celebrations, feel free to sit it out. Let close friends and family know your intentions so they don’t worry, and plan the day so that you can deal with the onslaught of emotions that may come up. Go to a movie, binge watch your favorite TV shows, or catch a movie classic that is unrelated to a holiday memory. Give yourself a spa day at home, curl up with a good book and a favorite beverage and just do the day your way. You might even want to visit the grave of your lost loved one.

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Making a plan to honor your lost loved one will help everyone to feel a part of your experience and help them to express their own thoughts on the loss as many have been impacted also in various ways. It may not seem like it in the beginning, it didn’t to me, but rest assured that the pain will slowly subside. Each moment of pain, in time, will give way to a renewed spirit and an appreciation of a life once lived, a life once shared, and beautiful memories to have and to keep.

One day you may decide to give back to others in some way during the holidays. This will help to fill the void left by your loss. Believe it or not, helping others is one way of helping yourself to heal. In time you will have gotten a handle on dealing with your loss. Remember, be patient with yourself and do not be discouraged as this too shall get easier.

I promise.

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon .

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Who Shall Comfort Thee

No one understands the rituals of grieving more than those who have walked that path. How long one remains on this road cannot be readily determined as it depends on each individual.

So many well meaning friends and family just don’t get it, you know,the whole “my husband/wife is dead” thing. I hear this complaint from practically everyone I’ve spoken to who has lost a spouse.Some folks actually think and say,”She’s/he’s gone now and pretty soon you’ll be back to normal.”  But, as I’ve stated before, after losing a spouse you will never go back to “normal”. You will be transformed and enter into what I call a “new normal“. When I think about it now, I can understand how hard  it  would be for anyone to wrap their head around such a drastic loss. How can one comprehend the magnitude of pain and sorrow that one goes through unless they are in that person’s body or mind. I understand also that, most of the time, it’s out of care for the individual that people will urge loved ones to get over it and become a part of the world again. Now,however, I have so many years behind me and can now step back and look at my own experience through a re-calibrated lens.

When my father died in 2005, I was so devastated. I missed him sorely and  would grieve openly and then silently for a few years. What stopped me from being open with my grief…… my consideration for others. I knew that I had to at least look like I was living in the present for the sake of my husband. I knew that my husband would not understand why I was gloomy and sad for a prolonged period of time. In fact he said to me that,” he missed my father too.” However, I felt as though he was stealing my grief for my father from me by letting me know that he missed him too.Thus,in his mind,we were in the same boat,so to speak. What he didn’t understand was that my dad was not my father-in-law, he was my father who raised me, and cared for me and taught me things and loved and cherished me. After he died, I just needed someone to comfort me, not share the pain with me. I did not voice these thoughts to my husband, as I would not have known how to have said this to him then, and I realized that he was doing the best he could. So I hid my ongoing grief and gave the appearance of things having gone back to normal. Ironically, when my husband lay dying, probably 3 to 4 weeks before he actually passed away, it was his father and my father that he “saw” in visions as he lay ill and, I’m sure at that point filled with pain, yearning to leave this place.

I was fortunate because I had a few friends that I could turn to for comfort, and I decided that I did not want to burden my husband with having to be there for me for an indeterminate amount of time. I knew that my husband was not built that way, to be a vessel for those who grieve, so I tucked it away and grieved on my own.

But as luck would have it, I knew a woman who shared with me that when her father died suddenly, it sent her into such a tailspin, but she knew that she had to eventually put a cap on “it” because her husband wouldn’t understand and would worry that she was “taking too long to grieve”. So she continued to grieve silently, when in reality her father was thefirst person she thought of when she awoke and the last person she thought of before going to sleep. My conversations with this woman gave me comfort and reassurance. I found it to be an open, and honest, conversation about grief and grief management. Most people will just tell you things like,” It took a long time but eventually I got over it”,or “It was very tough but after awhile I was able to get through it”. Although all of these epitaphs should seem to bring reassurance, in reality these statements are way too general to validate the feelings and experiences of those who are in the midst of “hell on earth.”

I continued on grieving silently for my dad and after a while no one really knew how terribly I missed him.In fact the event that interrupted my grieving for my father was when my life was disrupted by the catastrophic illness which entered Chuck’s life and changed our lives forever. Once we got a confirmed diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, it put an abrupt end to the lingering grief that I had for my dad.I knew that I had to be strong and at the ready for the days that lay ahead.

Some people are just not built to be long-term consolers for the bereaved. They can love you, and take care of you when you’re sick, but to console, to give comfort, to patiently empathize until another’s grief is done, that’s a quality  that few people possess. I cannot fault my husband for his lack of empathy,long-term.He was a good human being, loving and precious and always did the best he could to care for me, and to be there when it mattered.When I think back on that time I realize that my husband did not want me to get buried in my grief. He wanted me to remain among the living. He could not bring my dad back to me but he didn’t want to lose me too.

Now, here’s the interesting part of this piece, many people who urge others to move their lives forward quickly and put the grief behind them, are often people who are good at putting a lid on their own grief and sorrow.If grief after loss is never dealt with it remains with you as long as you live. When my father was ill, before he could no longer speak, he said he was not afraid to die because he would see his mother again. Ironically, when Chuck was ill he shared how he longed to see his father again. Chuck missed his father so much, but he tucked his grief away and went on with the rest of his life. He felt he had a responsibility,as a man, to suck it up and be present. I knew of his longstanding grief and how the pain from that loss never really left him. I also knew that after that major event in his life he was never the same.Thus,as they both made their way to death’s door,my father and Chuck, were both looking forward to crossing that threshold with hopes that they would be reunited with their lost loved ones once again.

There’s not much we can do about other people’s reactions to our losses,however we can stop them in their tracks and let them know that we’re already in pain so their words,though well meant,are not quite what we need to hear at the moment. You will be teaching others how to care for you with their words,and if you can’t find the words,just say Stop!

When my husband died, I didn’t want to overburden and worry my friends and family, so I learned to grieve alone. I would talk to God,  meditate, ” talk” to my husband and I would talk to myself as I prayed for the pain to subside. Many, many months down the road I did begin to feel the heartache begin to ebb, and in the process of my being there for myself I found that I was all I needed. I became a better friend to myself and eventually I was able to stand in the truth of who I had become.I soon took up writing and began to write my book. Forcing myself to not get consumed by my overwhelming grief, I was able to lead myself out of the gray tunnel that I was in.

When all seems lost and those who grieve have no one else to turn to, as I’ve read in the various grief communities and the various notes and emails that I receive, we must continue to live as we grieve. It’s okay to shut it off for awhile and think about other things.Redecorate,try out a new hobby, cultivate a new skill, begin to sort through personal items you want to keep and things you want to ditch.You will find that to be an evolutionary process in itself,that you will revisit as time goes on.Maybe you like to make jewelry, maybe you’ve always wanted to to learn how to fish, maybe you want to take a trip to someplace you’ve never been.As you begin to become more active or master a new area of expertise, you will slowly begin the subtle transformation from grief to recovery and slip into your “new normal.”

If those who care for us feel that we’re taking too long to get past our grief then that’s on them. As you begin to explore new activities you will begin to create new friendships and in so doing you will begin to feel alive and whole again.

This is a tough tough journey, but as we turn to ourselves for comfort we will eventually feel a surge of hope.We will soon be in control of our own destiny, as we begin to feel alive and whole again on our own terms.


Read more about grief and recovery after loss in Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all other e-booksellers.