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When the Holidays Hurt
19 Ways to Ease the Pain* by Victor Parachin
Thanksgiving is coming and then December will soon be here with its festive holidays when people are supposed to be happy and joyous. Because my husband, Harry, died last summer I'm dreading this time of year. My only wish is that I could fast-forward my life from mid November to January 2.

The first Christmas after my son Justin died, I just wanted to sleep the season away. But I had a younger daughter who expected Santa to come just as he always had. So I'm making plans but my body feels lifeless as I go through the motions of making December festive for her.

These two expressions about the winter celebrations—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas—are a poignant reminder that holidays are always difficult for those who have experienced the death of a loved one. What is a great season of joy for many is a season of heightened grief for others. It is a time of year when the feelings of loss are magnified. While there is no magic solution nor a quick fix for the pain of a first holiday without a loved one, there are steps that can be taken to regain a sense of control and make the holidays less painful. Here are 19 suggestions for managing, and even enjoying, the holidays.

  1. Have a family conference about holidays.
    To plan a holiday exactly the way it has been for 20 years will be comforting for some families but can be extremely traumatic for others. Call a family conference to discuss the best way of proceeding. Let everyone express their needs and wishes. Through compromise and negotiation everyone can get a little of what they need. Be guided by the reality that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays after a loved one has died. As a family, chart your own course and do what feels right.

  2. Lower expectations.
    Don't expect too much from yourself, after all, you are in grief. No matter what you do, you will not feel as joyous as you have felt in years past. Avoid striving for perfection. "The harder I tried to make Christmas perfect, the more frustrated I felt," recalls Diane, the mother of three school aged children who was widowed after only 11 years of marriage. "Without my husband Jonathan I realized this Christmas simply wasn't going to be perfect no matter what I did."

    Remember, distress is normal. Don't judge yourself harshly just because your emotions may be more volatile during holidays. Recognize that your distress and anxiety about the holidays is normal. Thousands of other bereaved women and men have felt as you are currently feeling. Try to be in tune with your feelings and respond appropriately. If you feel like crying, then cry. If you feel the need to retreat and be alone for a few hours, then do so.

  3. Shop smart.
    Plan ahead for holiday shopping. If being in a mall with holiday decorations and music will be upsetting for you then consider shopping early, before the holiday rush. Or, you can always shop by phone or via mail order catalogs. "Gift shopping was really hard for me after my husband's death," says Mary who had been married 21 years. "So I bought easy things like gift certificates. I also shopped when the stores were least busy."

  4. Express and explore your faith.
    Continuing to pray, meditate, reflect and join others in a common act of worship can ease holiday pains. Consider this observation from Robert Meyer, a physician whose wife took her life. In an article titled "When a Spouse Takes Her Life, Turn to A Faith Beyond," Meyer writes: "Prior to this time, I had been spared any great tragedies in my life. And I had regarded religion in time of crisis as just another prescription for crutches. I surprised myself at just how comfortable I used those crutches. Surrounded by other worshippers at a service, reciting traditional prayers, or singing in unison, it was comforting to find that when my faith was running low, I could turn to another faith which had stood the test of thousands of years. If that faith and the people who trusted in it had survived , then so would I."

  5. Don't buy into holiday myths.
    Keep reminding yourself that the holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations for intimacy, closeness, relaxation and joy for many people, not just the grieving. Be aware that a wide variety of people feel the pressures, demands, depression and fatigue that come with holidays. Don't buy into the cultural myth that the holidays are one happy, pleasant day after another. Try to enjoy what you can. Accept the hard moments knowing they will pass.

  6. Do something symbolic.
    During the holidays remember your loved one through a symbol. For example, burn a special candle at Thanksgiving dinner or hang a special Christmas ornament or plant a tree on New Year's Day. These acts will help you remember your loved one as you celebrate the holidays.

  7. Don't try to do everything yourself.
    If, in the past, you were primarily responsible for making the holiday a rich family experience, don't feel the pressure to continue that pattern. Ask and allow family and friends to help you with shopping, baking, cooking, decorating and wrapping.

  8. Concentrate on the true meaning of the holiday.
    Thanksgiving is a time to be with family and friends sharing gratitude for the material and spiritual blessings enjoyed in this country. Likewise, Christmas is a season of hope and love to be shared in the company of family and good friends. Place your focus on deepening your relationships. Remember that the holiday is much more than shopping, wrapping, decorating and cooking.

  9. Find a unique way to remember your loved one.
    "After our son, aged 13, died from cancer, we decided to use the Christmas money we would have spent on him to buy gifts for other needy children," says Don, the boy's father. "Although David died seven years ago, we continue this custom every Christmas. It makes us feel so much better knowing that through David we are making Christmas nicer for other children. Over the seven years we have purchased gifts for nearly 100 kids."

  10. Ask for what you need from others.
    One grieving father told his family and friends he wanted his daughter mentioned during holiday conversations. "I felt the family and our circle of friends were engaging in a conspiracy of silence about my deceased daughter. They were afraid that I would be further saddened if they mentioned her name. Actually, it was just the opposite for me. I found it helpful and healing to hear others speak about her."

  11. Reach out to help others.
    During the holidays, volunteer your time at a shelter, soup kitchen, hospital, hospice or other civic organization. Helping others is an effective way of taking the focus off your own pain and establishing perspective in your life. Consider this insight from James Angell whose daughter, Susan, a college senior, was killed in an automobile accident. In his book, O Susan (Hope Publishing House, 1990), Angell recalls, "I have discovered two effective kinds of therapy for a broken heart. One is to bring yourself into intimate touch with the sufferings of other people. I found that out by my regular visits to the hospitals. Nothing has helped in the relief of my own sorrow so much as sitting at the bedside of someone else who is trying to cope with pain or prospect of his own death. The other is to look continually for ways to do for others the things I would like to do for Susan, but cannot."

  12. Read for encouragement.
    Visit a local bookstore or library to arm yourself with inspirational and self-help books during the holidays. Pick up a mixture of books which deal with various aspects of grief recovery as well as inspirational and motivational books by authors such as Rev. Robert Schuller, Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Wayne Dyer, Ph.D., and Bernie S. Siegel, M.D. They will inform as well as inspire you. Plan to spend an hour daily reading from those books.

  13. Be patient with yourself.
    The loss of a loved one usually affects on sleep patterns and eating habits. Your overall energy will be lower. Be patient with yourself and respect natural limitations. Alan Wolfelt, a Colorado grief specialist offers this advice: "Feelings of loss will leave you fatigued. Your low energy level may naturally slow you down. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. And lower your own expectations about being at your peak during the holiday season."

  14. Cry but get on with the holidays.
    Tears and sadness are a natural part of grieving. However, they do not have to ruin the entire holiday for you and for others. Fred, widowed after a satisfying marriage of 37 years, says: "After Mabel died, I didn't think I could cope with the first holiday season. However, I found that if I let myself cry when I needed to I was ready to go on again until the next teary session came along. My advice to others facing a first holiday after the death of a loved one is to let your tears and sadness come and go. They are natural emotions. When expressed freely they actually make you feel better and more able to get on with the holidays."

  15. Let your limits be known.
    Don't allow others to coerce you into activities you know will be highly unpleasant for you. Let your limits be known to concerned others who may be determined not to let you be sad or alone. If you would rather spend a quiet evening alone rather than be at a social event, express your feelings. If you would like to be included in an activity, let people know. Others will be best able to help you if they know what you need.

  16. Stay connected.
    Bereavement can be tremendously isolating. Maintain healthy and vital contacts with others by deepening connections with family and friends-call them, write them or be in their presence often. Participate in familiar rituals and customs. Church services, civic organizations, and self-help groups can provide you with additional support and bring you together with others who share your values and interests.

  17. Remember, it's OK to have joy at the holidays.
    Enjoying parts of the holidays does not mean you are being unfaithful to your deceased loved one. It is not a betrayal to experience some joy. Just as you give yourself permission to mourn during the holiday, give yourself permission to have joy.

  18. Seek and speak with a spiritual leader.
    The loss of a loved one often brings with it deep theological and philosophical issues. The holidays can magnify those questions. Don't hesitate to seek and speak with a spiritual leader. Most clergy will be responsive and seek ways to be as helpful as possible.

  19. Finally, keep in mind that most grievers report that their anxious anticipation of the holiday was harder than the actual event.
    Many find that anticipated problems are solved quite naturally. For example, when Margaret's husband died, she recalls this concern: "On the first Christmas after John died I was worried about who would pass out the gifts, something he always did with great gusto." When the day came, it was her nine-year-old who unexpectedly offered to play Santa. "He read the names on the packages with all the enthusiasm of a teacher taking roll call on Monday morning, yet his style thoroughly charmed us. What could have been a difficult hour naturally turned out to be joy filled."

Victor Parachin is a grief recovery facilitator in Claremont, CA.

* This information was reprinted from the November 1997 The Director magazine and is not available in brochure format.
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