I lost my Dad on Christmas Eve when I was just 16. The next year my Mom, Grandma and I took our holiday grief on vacation and found ourselves on a beach in Hawaii for the holiday season. It was a great way to break with the traditions and memories none of us wanted to face.
My most vivid memory of that Hawaiian vacation was sitting next to an older gentleman at dinner on Christmas Eve and noticing he was wearing the exact same sweater my Dad would’ve been wearing. It brought my grief right up to the surface and I left the dinner to go down to the beach and cry.
Needless to say, it’s been a long time since I felt the untarnished joy during the holiday season. But, I believe that we are deserving of joy during the holidays, even if it comes balanced with the heartache and longing for the person we love and are missing deeply.
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In my book, From Grief to Growth, I talk about an essential element of healing that is learning to hold both joy and sadness in the same moment. There is no more challenging time to do this than the holidays. This is why I've put together these ten easy-to-follow tips that will support you as you navigate this festive season.
I don’t like to say ‘survive the holidays,’ because I want to encourage you to have the mindset that you're always fully capable of more than survival. These are simple, practical tips that don’t require a lot on your part, but are focused to help you the most this time of year. Enjoy!
Often, much of our holiday grief comes from not knowing what’s going to happen or how traditions and events are going to feel differently after the loss of a loved one. So, take some quiet time to think through what specific traditions you're most concerned about.
The best way to do this is to find some time to sit quietly and connect with your breath. Once you’ve centered yourself, ask yourself the question: “What events or traditions are creating the most anxiety for me right now?” Your inner knowing has the answer. You might immediately be pulled to an event or activity. Notice how your body feels, the sensations and energy around the activity.
Tree of knowledge: learn to cope with your grief during the holidays
If nothing comes up immediately then begin to bring your thoughts to various holiday activities. Check in with each one – tree decorating, cookie exchange, for example. How does each one feel; what comes up? You might find some are more emotionally charged than others.
Be open to the idea that some traditions you will want to wrap in love and keep, while others will need to be shelved for a while (and maybe for ever). Recognize the traditions you keep will never be the same, but keeping them honors the love you feel for the person you lost.
"We are deserving of joy during the holidays, even if it comes balanced with the heartache and longing for the person we love and are missing deeply.”
Every year will be a little bit different, and what feels right this year might not feel the same in the coming years. Grief is a process and you must be willing to evolve with it. Always be open to what will help you move forward in your grief… and sometimes we need to go backwards to go forward! Get out your list from tip one.
Now, let’s take the next steps:
• Which events do you want to keep this year?
• Which events are too painful this year or don’t feel right?
• What or how can you modify an event?
If you're undecided on some, come back to your list again later or sit with the idea of doing that event and see what comes up. I know we can’t always control everything about the holiday seasons with family being involved, etc, but don’t worry.
Even if you decide to escape the entire holiday season and fly away to Hawaii for the holidays (been there, done that!), it’s important that you take time to honor your loved one. It could be with a donation of time or money, or creating a sacred space or a new tradition. No matter what you decide, be mindful about setting time aside to actively honor your loss. What would you like to do this year to include your loved one in the holiday season? What do you need to do to make this come to life?
Quite simply, cry. Don’t be the tough guy or girl who pretends it’s all good. It’s not! You’re going through a season or anniversary without someone who was a very important part of your life and holiday grief is part of that. By yourself or with your besties, it doesn’t matter, just let it happen.
Another way to look at this is: are you checking in with yourself to know what’s going on emotionally and physically? Are you filling your days with busy activity to disconnect from the emotional heartache you would feel if you had a moment of downtime?
“Much of our holiday grief comes from not knowing what’s going to happen or how traditions and events are going to feel differently after the loss of a loved one.”
Or, perhaps, you're withdrawing from friends, family and social activities. There isn’t a right or wrong way to deal with holiday grief, but we need to be aware of our tendencies to protect ourselves or how we might fall into negative coping strategies. Sometimes a good cry is a better reset than the work we put into avoiding our reality. So, if you need a good cry, have one.
Family and friends might not know exactly which activities you’ll struggle with: what might be hard and/or memorable to them might not be the same for you. Generally speaking, they will want to support you, especially through you holiday season grief. But, you're the only one who knows what you need and how you're feeling, so don’t make it harder for them by expecting them to guess what this is like for you.
Out and about: self-care by getting into nature
We all experience grief differently, so share your fears, concerns and desires. Express what’s important to you or how you would like to handle a specific event. It doesn’t mean you'll always get what you want or need, but it means that you have given voice to your grief and honored your process.
There's no more important time to laser focus your energy on self-care than during the holidays. Lack of sleep, poor food choices, increased alcohol consumption, decreased exercise, increased stress all add up to a massive grief hangover!
Your emotional self is already on overdrive and this will leave your immune system susceptible to illness and your physical body exhausted. Make hydration, sleep, whole foods, stress management, and exercise a priority leading up to and including these seasonal events. Care for yourself by: eating a healthy breakfast, drinking more water, going to bed 30 min early, journaling, being outside connecting with nature, and skipping that second or third drink at a party!
This is a continuation of the last tip. Even if you are taking care of yourself, notice when your tank is getting close to “E”. This is especially important if you're the type of person who likes to stay busy to keep their mind off things. Exhaustion (physical and emotional) is often the root cause of emotional meltdowns. And, as you know, grieving is emotional exhausting by itself, then you add the emotional stress of the holidays and your tank is already half empty!
So, remember that it’s OK to say ‘no’ to events, or change your ‘yes’ to a ‘no’ at the last minute if you notice you're not feeling up to the task. List three ways you know you’re getting low on energy (ie, irritable, fatigue, craving sugar/caffeine). Now list three ways you can fill your tank (ie: nap, take a bath, journal, read a book):
The holidays are an especially busy time of year for extra parties and events – work, neighborhood and family are examples. Take time to choose only one or two events that are important for you to attend. These might be required for your job or things you just simply don’t want to miss.
Be mindful about your selection and take your time to RSVP. For social events that you might have attended with your loved one, ask yourself if you're ready for that situation. Imagine yourself in that environment. Who will be at the event? What will it be like to attend?
Party picks: cope with holiday grief by celebrating only when you want
Have an exit strategy! If it’s required that you attend, or you feel like you ‘should’ go, make sure you have a plan for getting out if things get too difficult. This might be driving a separate car or letting the host know you will be not be staying long.
As you're planning your social events, make sure you put ‘me’ time on the calendar. Whether that's to get out into nature and hike, get a massage, read a book, take a bath, it doesn’t matter – just build in time to recharge your batteries. This could also include making time to be with close friends or family that help you feel connected and loved. Be sure to reach out to these people and let them know you might need some support during the holiday season.
Write a list of the people you can connect with and/or activities that soothe your soul. And, again, since people aren’t mind readers, let people know you're taking care of yourself by scheduling time to reflect and recharge.
One of the most amazing ways to make sense of your grief during an anniversary or holiday season is to make it a little better for someone else. Unfortunately, there's so much suffering around the holidays – in this we are not alone. Donate to a charity in your loved one’s name. Give your time to helping others. Buy a gift for someone in a hospital or nursing home. Pay for the person behind you at Starbucks. Volunteer your time. The options for random acts of kindness are endless.
Honestly, nothing soothes and heals our own wounds more than helping someone else. How can you help someone else feel comforted this holiday season? Giving doesn’t have to be financial – you can give of your time, you can donate clothes or other items you no longer use. ●
Paula Stephens, M.A. is the founder of Crazy Good Grief, an organization that teaches positive growth and resilience after the loss of a loved one. Her work is inspired by the personal loss of her oldest son who passed away unexpectedly while home on leave from the Army. Paula is a speaker, yogi and life coach. She's also the author of From Grief to Growth: 5 Essential Elements to Give your Grief Purpose and Grow from Your Experience. Paula is a practicing Buddhist and recently became the first Buddhist Chaplain to work at the county jail where she lives. She is the mother of four boys and lives in Littleton, Colorado.
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