Handling the Holidays

By Therese Rando, Ph.D.

One of the most painful issues for you to deal with is how to survive the holidays after the death of the person you love. Because holidays are supposed to be family times, and because of the extraordinary (although unrealistic) expectation that you should feel close to everyone, this time of year can underscore the absence of your deceased loved one more than any other time. The important thing to remember is that you and your family do have options about how to cope with the holidays. These are a few things to keep in mind:

As much as you’d like to skip from November to January 2nd, this is impossible. Therefore, it will be wise for you to take control of the situation by facing it squarely and planning for what you do and do not want to do to get through this time.

Realize that the anticipation of pain at the holidays is always worse than the actual day.

Recognize that what you decide for this year can be changed next year; you can move to something new or back to the old way. Decide what is right for, you and your family now. Don’t worry about all the other holidays to come in years ahead. You will be at different places in your mourning and in your life then.

Recognize, also, that your distress about the holidays is normal. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Countless other bereaved people have felt, and do feel, as you do right now.

Ask yourself and your loved ones to decide what is important for you to make your holidays meaningful and bearable. Then, through compromise and negotiation, see if everyone can get a little of what he or she wants and needs Give-and-take is important here.

Do something symbolic. Think about including rituals that can appropriately symbolize your memory of your loved one. For example, a candle burning at Thanksgiving dinner, the hanging of a special Christmas ornament, or the planting of a tree on New Years Day may help you to mark the continued abstract presence of your deceased loved one while still celebrating the holiday with those you love who still survive. Remembering your deceased loved one in this fashion can make an important statement to yourself and others.

Recognize that the holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations for intimacy, closeness, relaxation, and joy for all people—not just for the bereaved. Try not to buy into this for yourself—you already have enough to contend with.

Be aware of the pressures, demands, depression, increased alcohol intake, and fatigue that comes with holidays. As a bereaved person you may feel these more than others. Take time out to take care for yourself during this time. You will need it even more.

Re-evaluate family traditions. Ask yourself and your surviving loved ones whether you need to carry them on this year or whether you should begin to develop some new ones. Perhaps you can alter your traditions slightly so that you can still have them to a certain extent but don’t have to highlight your loved one’s absence more than it already is. For example, you may want to have Thanksgiving dinner at your children’s house instead of yours. Or you might open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning.

Recognize that your loved one’s absence will cause pain no matter what you do. This is only natural and right. After all, you are mourning because you love and miss this person. Try to mix this with your love for those you still have and your positive memories of the past. “Bittersweet” is a good word to describe this. You can feel the sweetness of the holiday but also the bitterness of your loved one’s absence. Together they can give you a full, rich feeling, marked with love for those present and those gone whom you will never forget.

Plan ahead for your shopping tasks. Make a list ahead of time. Then, if you have a good day, capitalize on it and do the shopping you can. Try to consolidate the stores you want to visit. If you have trouble with shopping right now, do your shopping by catalog or mail order, or ask friends to help you out.

Tears and sadness do not have to ruin the entire holiday for you or for others. In yourself have the cry you need and you will be surprised that you can go on again until the next time you need to release the tears. Facing family holidays in your loved ones absence are normal mourning experiences and part of the healing process. Let your tears and sadness come and go throughout the whole day if necessary. The tears and emotions you do not express will be the ones which are destructive to you.

Ask for what you want or need from others during the holidays. One bereaved mother said that, as appropriate, she wanted to hear her dead daughter mentioned. She knew everyone was thinking of her daughter and wanted them to share their thoughts.

You may find yourself reminiscing about other holidays you shared with your deceased loved one. This is normal. Let the memories come. Talk about them. This is part of mourning and doesn’t stop just because it is a holiday. In fact, the holidays usually intensify it.

Having some fun at the holidays does not mean you don’t miss your loved one. It is not a betrayal. You must give yourself permission to have fun when you can, just like you must give yourself permission to mourn when you have the need.

You may have to let your limits be known to concerned others who are determined not to let you be sad or alone. Let others know what you need and how they can best help you. Don’t be forced into doing things you don’t want to do or don’t feel up to solely to keep others happy. Determine what and how much you need, and then inform others.

Discuss holiday tasks and responsibilities that must be attended to—for example, preparing the meals, doing the shopping, decorating the house. Consider whether they should be continued, reassigned, shared, or eliminated.

Break down your goals into small, manageable pieces that you can accomplish one at a time. Don’t overwhelm or overcommit yourself. The holidays are stressful times for everyone, not just the bereaved, so you will need to take it slow and easy. Look at your plans and ask what they indicate. Are you doing what you want or are you placating others? Are you isolating yourself from support or are you tapping into your resources? Are you doing things that are meaningful or are you just doing things?

Do something for someone else. Although you may feel deprived because of the loss of your loved one, reaching out to another can bring you some measure of fulfillment. For example, give a donation in your loved one’s name. Invite a guest to share your festivities. Give food to a needy family for Thanksgiving dinner.

Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp 289-292.

Related articles:

The Value of Reminiscing

So Let Us Celebrate

Suggestions for Dealing with the Holiday Blues

• Managing the Holidays

• No Holiday from Grief

Also by Therese Rando:

Sudden Death

Family Reorganization After a Loss

What 'Recovery' Will and Will Not Mean

The Work of Grief

Dr. Therese Rando, author of How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, is a psychologist in Warwick, Rhode Island, where she is the Clinical Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. Having published 70 works pertaining to the clinical aspects of dying, death, loss, and trauma, Dr. Rando is a recognized expert in the field and has appeared on numerous television programs, including “Dateline,” CBS “This Morning,” “Today Show,” “Good Morning, America,” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Image Source: StockXchng/jaimek


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Comment by Nancy McDonald on October 3, 2013 at 2:34pm

A lot of this article may seem like common sense, but I had to read some of the ideas for myself before I had an "aha" moment.  By not talking about my holiday blues with my husband, I have been isolating myself emotionally.  If he doesn't know how I'm feeling, how can I ever expect to make any changes in our holiday routine?  It's been almost 11 years since my brother's sudden death.  Yet it's only now that I'm starting to feel calm about his "death day", birthday, and the holidays which all take place in a 30 day span.  Of course, the holidays are not here yet.   With a daughter-in-law added to my family dynamics, I'm hopeful that this year will be better for me.  I would love to go somewhere different for Christmas, but I don't think that's going to happen if I want to see my sons and their significant others.  Oh well, time for some new traditions maybe...

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