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 http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu .

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They Are with Us More Now

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My husband Chuck and I were very busy people. We had our respective careers and essentially, like other baby boomers, we worked hard at working hard. We were parents and we were children of living parents.

Before we got married, Chuck and I spent most weekends together and sometimes he surprised me with a visit after work during the weekday. He was a venture capitalist then, working at his own company and teaching business and finance in local colleges in the evenings.

I always looked forward to my time with Chuck. We would spend weekends at his apartment talking about life and our future. We talked about our pasts as we continued to get to know each other. We loved watching new movies and old ones. Chuck was a movie buff, and the first time I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s was at his apartment. He was shocked that I had never seen that movie, and I discovered that that movie reminded me of myself in a lot of ways. It reminded him of me as well, oh but then I do digress.

Eventually we developed our own rituals and traditions, many of which occurred in the summertime. Trips to Connecticut dropping my son Karim off at camp, and then, childless for two months we’d explore the surrounding environs. We took trips to Massachusetts, DC, Michigan, Chicago,Louisiana, N.C., Hilton Head, Sag Harbor,Narragansett, Block Island…….various and sundry places, traveling along together and growing closer.

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Once we were married we began to suffer from a scarcity of time. Although we did things together, and still continued with our summer vacations, time spent wasn’t of the same quality as before. Life changing events happened so quickly out of the blue back then; Chuck’s mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Chuck’s dad became ill as well. Chuck’s sister moved away from New York, she, having been the spirit and soul of our family.

As the years went on my father became ill and would pass away in 2005. I mourned him sorely for a long while until Chuck was diagnosed with cancer. It was then that I had to be able to switch gears from silent mourning for my dad to caring for my husband. Little did we know, that the tenor of our life together was being tested and would soon be disrupted by a major challenge. Our day to day lives changed too, as did our time with each other.We were focused more on the sudden changes in our families that were taking place, than on quality time between the two of us.

The long year spent as my husband’s caregiver was consumed with his care and well being more than our relationship. He was so ill, bravely soldiering on and, although I was still working, I made sure that all his needs were met. It was tough, and I’m sure I fell short in a lot of ways, but I did my best. I got support from his family, my family, my colleagues and friends. There was no time to spend focusing on us, as I was on a mission to save my husband’s life as it slowly slipped away.

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Eventually, Chuck died and herein lies the irony. I began to talk to Chuck, to dream of him, to write to him and about him. I asked him questions, told him things that were on my heart. I thought of him all the time until he became a part of my daily being. He remained with me wherever I went. All the memories of him kept me close to him…awake, asleep…. asleep, awake. Then one day I came to an odd realization that in many ways I was closer to Chuck in death than I had been in life.

The everyday busy-ness of our lives prevented us from re-creating our premarital closeness. But now in death, now that he was no longer alive, he was closer to me than ever before. His spirit was or had become a part of me. He had become my eternal partner, somewhere in the ether…free to summon whenever I wished.

This is the odd but true legacy that I’ve gained since my husband’s death. It’s a gift out of my great loss, albeit a bittersweet one with a lesson for others: Love your partner….cherish and care for them while they are with you here, in the flesh. Time spent with each other should be more important than time spent with anyone else, because in love matters, love matters and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

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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 http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu