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Grief at the Holidays

When we look from a distance at someone who has suffered the death of a loved one, we usually think of that death as an event, a specific incident that happened at such-and-such date and time and place.

But that’s not how it works. Yes, there was a specific date when a dying happened. But a death—for those who have lost someone, a death knows no end.

Death is the absence of the one we love.

The dying—the beginning of that absence—occurs, and then the next moment happens, and the moment after that. The moments pile up over time and turn into days, and months, and years, but in every single one of those moments—the one we love continues to be gone.

Grieving Intensifies During the Holidays

If you’ve lost someone close to you, you know that he or she continues to be gone during the holiday season as well, of course. You know they won’t be here—and steal yourself for their conspicuous absence during this family time of year. Perhaps you even dread the coming of the holidays, wishing you could turn the calendar straight to January.

No matter how much you’ve prepared yourself, anticipating how the holiday season will magnify the loss of the one you love, it seems there are always other losses that appear as well.

What doesn’t hit you at first is that when your loved one leaves this life, he or she dragged a whole lot more of your world through that crack than you could ever imagine. Over the days and months following the death, you inevitably find yourself tripping over holes as you discover yet another item or routine or tradition or symbol that’s now gone too, gone with that person.

These other losses aren’t limited to the end-of-year holidays—but think about all the traditions, routines, and symbols wrapped up in this season. At this time of year, there are so many more pieces of your old life that you now discover are lost, broken, or gone entirely.

Sometimes it helps to be with others who are grieving, to share stories and know that you’re not alone in discovering new “holes” during a season when others are celebrating. That’s part of what happens in the Highmark Caring Place environment.

Here are a few holiday losses that children and adults at the Caring Place have shared with us:

  1. “My husband was the one who put all the decorations out every year. He was like a little kid; he just loved the holidays. It feels so empty without his holiday spirit around. And the house looks sad and dark without all the attention he used to put into dressing it up. I knew I’d miss him, but I never realized all he added to the holidays.”

  1. “On New Year’s Eve, my mom would make these special soft pretzels that we would all eat just at midnight. We would dip them in all kinds of things; some sweet, some salty, some even hot and spicy. It was always a special time, not only for our family, but we’d invite friends and neighbors to join us too. After my mom died, it was just the three of us in the house on New Year’s Eve, and we didn’t even stay up to midnight. We just went to bed.”

  1. “My dad lit the shamash, the big candle, in our menorah every night of Hanukkah, every year. We would each have a chance to light the other candles, but it was always my dad’s job to light the shamash first every night. It feels so weird now when someone else lights it; it just doesn’t feel right.”

  1. “I remember my mother made cookies every December. She made a lot of them, and gave them to a lot of people. It seemed like the whole house smelled like cookies for a whole month. After Thanksgiving that first year, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, until it hit me that the house didn’t smell right—it just smelled like a regular old house. I think I miss that smell more than anything else.”

  1. “Every year, on Christmas Eve, my older brother read us The Night Before Christmas. He read it all dramatic, and very funny, even changing words and stuff. It was a tradition that we looked forward to, even when we were teenagers and he would be back from college. Christmas Eve just isn’t the same any more without that story the way he told it.”

  1. “Every year, my wife and I would give each other special Christmas tree ornaments, just our own special gifts, me to her, and her to me. I was out Christmas shopping, and it hit me, as I started looking at ornaments, that I had no one to buy an ornament for any more. And then getting the old ones out when the kids and I were decorating the tree—I wanted my wife to still be a part of our Christmas, but it was almost more than I could do to have them out, reminding me, every time I looked at the tree, that she wasn’t here now. And then on Christmas, with the kids opening their presents, and no little package from her. Not that I need a present. But just that little touch from her, that little reminder that someone somewhere was thinking about me. And that I was thinking of her the same way. It felt empty.”

Tips from the Highmark Caring Place

At the Caring Place, we spend time with grieving children, adolescents and families all year round. We hear about the holes formed when traditions or routines are broken or lost after someone in the family dies. Because the holiday season is so full of traditions, we know that even more of those holes appear around the holidays, making an already hard time even harder.

Whether a death occurred a few weeks ago or years ago, the holidays can sometimes feel like a minefield—you don’t know what loss you’ll stumble across next. Besides these surprises, there’s the contrast you can’t help but feel with your memories of past holidays. And it’s hard not to look at other families and feel set apart.

But you can get through the holidays.

Getting Through the Holidays After a Death in the Family

  1. Be with supportive people. Find those people who accept your feelings, who understand that the holidays can be more difficult and who allow you to express your feelings—happy and sad.

  2. Talk about your grief, and about the person who has died. With people you trust, share your feelings and your memories. Ignoring them by trying to keep busy won’t make the feelings go away, and could increase your stress and anxiety under the surface.

  3. Remember your limits. Grieving takes energy. You may find that you have even less energy now than at other times of the year. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to take whatever time for yourself you need.

  4. Plan your get-togethers. Focus on your needs, not on what well-meaning friends might have planned for you. Decide with your family what traditions you would like to continue, what traditions you would like to begin, and what traditions you’re going to need to let go of this year. Rituals can express respect and speak of lasting love—but not by chaining you to behaviors that don’t serve your needs. Having a plan—which you can change at any point if you wish to—can help you from being caught off guard.

  5. Remember that different people grieve differently—even within the same family. Allow everyone in the family to express their desires for the holidays. If some family members can’t bear to even see holiday decorations, and other members would like to make things as much like the Old Days as possible, try to see how much each person’s wishes can be accommodated. If a fully decked-out family room would be unbearable for some, what about smaller decorations? Or even paper ornaments made by children and kept in their rooms? If going to a traditional religious service is out of the question for a parent, perhaps another caring adult could take children if the children still want to go. In many cases, the choices don’t have to be all or nothing.

  6. Embrace your memories. Instead of ignoring memories, share them with those you trust. Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone you love. Memories that were made in love cannot be taken away by anyone.

  7. Allow children space to grieve in their own way. Be prepared for any type of reaction from children. Be patient with anger or meanness, but also be careful of a child trying to “be strong” for you. They need to grieve as well. And, especially with older children, don’t expect that they should spend the entire day with you. They may need the support and security of hanging out with friends.

  8. Remember that your grief is important. Grief is born out of giving and receiving love. Be patient with yourself, love yourself, and don’t let anyone take your grief away. Allow yourself to be surrounded by loving, caring people. If we did not love, we would not grieve.


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