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My 2 year old baby cousin, Brady, died when I was 5 years old.
I still remember the last Christmas we had together like it was yesterday. A memory etched in stone. Brady and I were both gifted matching red phones. I showed him how to use the big red phone to call me and we played our toddler version of telephone.
Little did I know that next year I’d be the only one on the line.
The next Christmas our family followed our regular traditions. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins showed up at our house on Christmas day and we all got through the day.
As a kid I was happy to be around my cousins… it was always what I looked forward to the most during the holidays and this year was no different. However, the cloud of sadness that permeated the room was impassable for all of us.
We were all missing the same person, whether it was our cousin, child, nephew, or grandchild.
While some family members wanted to avoid the pain and didn’t want to discuss Brady, others found comfort in talking about his life and what it would be like if he was still here.
Our family isn’t perfect. We had tense moments and difficult times around the holidays, and a lot of hurt that we didn’t always know how to navigate.
We’ve celebrated many holidays since then, together and apart. Our family has shrunk and grown with passing deaths, marriages, and births. We’ve adapted, evolved, and grown closer together.
Over the years, the holidays became easier to digest. We’ve all grown more open to discussing Brady’s life and our love for him, along with the lives of grandparents, parents, extended family and friends.
Our hardened and protective shields slowly broke down and we now share a softer side with one another.
To this day, I still think about Brady on Christmas, his birthday, and other holidays our family celebrates together that he never got to attend. I think about the toys he never got to open on Christmas morning, all of the cookies he never had the chance to eat, the beers he never got to drink with us cousins. Our holiday traditions he had to miss out on.
The memory of his life hasn’t gone away... if anything, it’s strengthened.
Now, I think about how Brady has shaped me, my cousins, aunts, uncles, and parents into more grateful, resilient, and empathetic people. He had a profound impact on each of us that will carry with us for the rest of our lives. In that way, Brady is forever with us in our hearts and at the core of what makes each of us who we are.
Decades later, the holidays are different for our family. Joy has returned and the cloud of sadness has dissipated.
We celebrate and talk about the lives we’ve lost, we create space for ourselves to feel what we need to feel, we support each other, and we are grateful for what we have in our lives.
We are better equipped to cope with losses and devastation because of the support system we’ve created for each other. This took time, vulnerability and hard conversations to create, but it sure was worth it.
Growing up, the holidays usually brings anticipation, joy, and wonder like no other time of the year. There’s presents, decorations, family, fun traditions, and plenty of food to go around.
However, as we get older and we experience the death of a loved one in our lives, holidays change. For many of us, the joy zaps out of the room and we’re left feeling empty and alone.
How can we go on celebrating with holiday cheer, knowing that our loved one is gone and will never share the fun family traditions with us ever again?
If there’s anything I learned through my cousin’s death, it’s that when we lose someone significant in our life, there will be a new normal that we will need to adjust to. Everyone grieves and copes with loss differently, and so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to moving on after a loved one’s death.
That being said, I’ve rounded up recommendations from people who’ve been in bereavement during the holidays and experts to help all of us find our own healthy ways to deal with grief during the holidays.
Remember as you read these recommendations that they may not all feel right for you, and that’s okay.
Be kind to yourself during this hard time and take what fits for you to create peace in your life during this holiday season. You may even allow yourself to try one recommendation, see how it feels, and then decide if it’s the right call for you.
As the holidays roll around, the times that were typically filled with happiness and wonder can become a time of dread, pain, and loneliness. Our mind fixates on the person missing and has a hard time having hope in what’s left standing.
“The swell of grief around the holidays is a common reason clients enter my therapy office this time of year. People often seek help for the immense sorrow that starts surfacing right around Thanksgiving,” shares psychotherapist Amy Morin in Psychology Today.
During this time, it’s important to understand that grief – intense waves of sadness, denial, anger, relief, joy and guilt – will be present with us throughout our days.
Being aware of the grief you’re dealing with can help you to begin finding ways to sit with your pain and begin to adjust to a new normal.
I talked to a licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ryan Howes who explains:
“Don't push grief away. Some people feel like they need to move on quickly, they don't want to bring others down, or they feel like being sad would upset the person who died. Grief is a natural experience of tears, longing, and memories that help you process the loss, make sense of it, and eventually move on.
We can't speed grief up artificially because our calendar or our friend's comfort levels demand it.
If you're sad, let yourself feel sad and miss your loved one. That's what helps you heal.”
Acknowledge your grief by writing down or sharing your feelings with someone in your life. There is no one right or wrong way to feel, so embrace what you’re feeling in every moment.
“Write a note. If you feel like the thoughts and feelings of your loved one seem to be everywhere, and may even get in the way of your current events and relationships, it may be helpful to send them a holiday card.
Write down what's happening in your life, how you've been thinking about them, and what you're missing. Whatever you feel you need to say.
Then erase it, burn it, bury it, or send it to the north pole, whatever feels right. The most important part is clarifying your thoughts and feelings and expressing them so you can get back to enjoying your holiday,” recommends Dr. Ryan Howes.
Around the holidays, there’s plenty of opportunity to spend money, eat lots of food, and indulge in drinking alcohol. In moderation, this is all fine and well.
However, indulging excessively in these activities is likely an attempt to numb the pain.
“Many people who feel sadness and loss over the holidays are tempted to overspend, overeat, or over-drink in an attempt to numb the pain. But really, they're just adding another problem as they feel guilty for their overindulgence.
Find a way to honor your loved one with a card or a donation or a night of looking through old photos, and then turn your attention back to the loved ones who are still with you,” says Dr. Ryan Howes.
While sitting with the pain is uncomfortable, it will be healthy in your healing journey. Instead of pushing your emotions beneath the surface, allowing them to come and go as they please will help you process the loss and move forward.
If you feel the urge to cry, cry. If you feel angry, try getting your energy out through physical activity.
Learn how to sit with the intense emotions of grief by practicing mindfulness. Whenever grief becomes overwhelming, return to your breath and allow it to guide you through life. Notice the air as it enters your nose and travels down into your belly. Slowly release your breath. Do you feel tension in your body? Visualize your breath traveling to the tension and physically releasing as you exhale.
Come back to your breath often and if you’d like extra guidance, try downloading and listening to guided meditations on the free app InsightTimer.
The next time you add an item to your cart or reach for a glass of wine, take a moment to pause and think about it. Are you picking this up to run away from what you’re feeling? If so, return to your breath and feel.
It’s common for some people to put on a front and force themselves to go about the holidays as normal. Doing all of the planning, shopping, attending parties, etc.
For some, the holidays are a welcomed distraction from their pain. However, for others, they feel as if they have to go about the holidays as the usually would.
If you’re feeling like the holidays are too much for you to handle, that’s fine!
You can take time for yourself, create space, and set your own plans. If Thanksgiving dinner or Hanukkah festivities brings up too much pain for you to handle at this point in your grief journey, it’s okay to skip it this year.
While friends and family may try to convince you to get over it or continue on as usual, you have every right to feel what you’re feeling and set your own boundaries for the holidays.
Create a holiday schedule with as little or as much activity that allows you to feel what you need to feel. Share with your family what your plans are and that you appreciate their support in your decision, even if that means skipping the family tradition this year.
By taking the time to plan ahead, you can have more control over your holiday season and do what makes sense for you. If you feel more comfortable driving yourself to the family party so that you can leave early if you want, do that.
Our friends and family don’t always know what to say or do when we’re grieving, especially since everyone handles grief differently. While some family members may be supportive and comfort you, others may not know how to handle the situation.
During this time, the more you can express what you’re feeling and what you need with those around you, the more they will understand how they can be supportive for you.
Leading up to the holiday celebrations, take the time to email, text, or call the family you plan to see over the holidays. Give them a glimpse into what you’re feeling and your plans for the holidays.
Let them know that you’re going through a hard time adjusting to a new normal and that you really appreciate their patience with your decisions to attend or not attend the holiday get togethers.
Maybe this year you ask your sister to drive with you to the family party and ask that she stays by your side to help get you through the tough times.
If you prefer to talk about the loved one you loss and share memories, let friends and family know. If you prefer not to talk about them, that’s fine too.
The more you share with your loved ones, the more supportive they can be for you. And, if you’re running into unsupportive family or friends, remember it’s okay to walk away from them in order to put your needs first.
A great way for some people to find connection with the one they’ve lost is to continue on their favorite past traditions, honoring them in the process.
If your loved one loved baking an apple pie for Christmas Eve, can you continue to do this on their behalf? Maybe you bake it while listening to their favorite music and crying your eyes out.
If your loved one’s favorite past time was carving the turkey for Thanksgiving, maybe you light a candle for them as you carve the turkey, or pass down their duty to another member of the family who will continue the tradition in their honor.
Think about all of the past traditions your loved one enjoyed doing during the holiday – whether that is Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year's Eve or New Year's itself. Take one or a few of the traditions and create a small ceremony around it.
Even if you change nothing throughout your past traditions, sometimes just thinking about your loved one while everything continues as usual will help you connect to them and their memories.
I deal with it by honoring the traditions we had before my father passed. He would have wanted it that way. I also give him a gift in a donation to a charity he loved. — Eric R. Burgess (@erburgess) November 11, 2019
Sometimes traditions are too painful to recreate without your loved one present. If this is the case, consider starting a new tradition with them in mind.
Whether it’s changing the house of where you normally celebrate the holidays or changing the cuisine of Christmas dinner because your loved one was the one who always made the turkey, it’s okay to switch things up.
If being home for the holidays is too much to bear, you could try leaving town and creating a new tradition of traveling during the holidays.
Whatever it is, know that you can still honor the life of your loved one, even through new traditions.
Think about what a new tradition could look like for your new normal. Try brainstorming ideas alone and in the company of other family members or friends.
Remember, you have the option to create something entirely new or slightly adjust your existing traditions. Do what feels right for you and how you want to honor your loved one.
During the first year when things were the most raw, we had to change things up. We couldn't keep our traditions the same because it was painfully obvious our person was missing. We changed locations, time, the foods we ate. And we tried to talk about our person if we could. — Adrienne Barnes (@AdrienneNakohl) November 11, 2019
When we no longer have our loved one to give love and support, we can feel a void.
Yet every holiday season there are people out there that desperately need help, love, and support. By helping others, we can make others and ourselves feel better.
Some options to help others during the holidays include:
Whatever it is you may choose to do to help others, your body will receive happy hormones that will make you actually feel better.
Think about ways you can honor your loved one by helping others. If your grandma loved to volunteer at the church, maybe you step in to fill her place this year. Or if your wife loved animals, volunteering at the pet shelter may be a great option.
Brainstorm ideas and if it feels right to you, schedule time to help those less fortunate than you to help yourself feel better and honor your loved one.
Being the only one intensely grieving during the holidays can be very isolating and overwhelming for anyone. However, you don’t have to do this alone. In fact, at any given point in time, there are others out there grieving the loss of their loved ones.
During this time, consider going to support groups to talk with people who are dealing with similar challenges as they go through the healing process. After all, death is a universal experience, and so is grief.
Find a local grief support group to attend before the holidays. You can also check Grief Share’s website for local “Surviving the Holidays” workshops that help guide you through the whole process.
If you know someone else going through grief, it may help to start a text thread with them to share your experience throughout the holidays. The GoodGrief app is a great resource if you’re looking for someone to share the grief experience with throughout the holidays.
If you lost someone important recently, this holiday season won’t be easy... but you will get through it. And over time, the holidays will become more digestible.
As the holiday season approaches, consider Dr. Ryan Howe’s advice:
“It’s also important that beyond honoring your feelings, you are also continuing to live. A year or two of nostalgic anniversaries and meaningful dates are understandable, but you can make room for new experiences, too.
It is possible to keep the old memories alive while creating new ones as well.
Just as it took our family time to adjust to the new normal, you and your family will take time too. Try to keep in mind the options above and give yourself time, patience, and kindness. Self-care is a gift, too.
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