THE HOLIDAY SEASON is a time of joy, surprises and laughter -but, it also can be a time of heartfelt grief and loneliness for many folks, especially families who have lost a loved one in the past year.
IN MY PROFESSIONAL ROLES as registered nurse and family therapist, I sat with many families who lost a loved one, while they grieved. As a member of the board of Hospice and Palliative Care of Charlotte, including having served as Board Chair, I am well aware that the holidays are a challenge for families who experience recent loss.
I HAVE PERSONAL LIFE EXPERIENCE, as well, in trying to get through the holidays after losing a loved one. Five years ago, both my Mother and Dad and a brother-in-law died within six months of one another – two of them left us in November, just before Thanksgiving. It was a long and difficult holiday year that stretched from Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year’s.
Ten suggestions for the Holidays When Loss is in the Room
1. ACCEPT THAT YOUR FEELINGS of loss are real, and recognize you may need some time alone during the holidays to grieve. Time alone is OK – taking a walk, stirring up something in the kitchen alone, taking a drive, taking time-out in your room. Research demonstrates that healthy families accept when a family member needs some time alone. HOWEVER, healthy families also reach out and support the person to re-engage in family life, if she is withdrawing too long.
2. GREIVING IS AKIN TO taking out a treasure box and going through your memories stored there, one by one – appreciating them and then putting them away. The work of grieving cannot be done all at once, but thankfully will occur over a period of time, as memories arise – even a year or two. Share memories of your loved one with close friends and family. There will surely be fond memories that will eventually make you all smile and even laugh together.
3. IT’S NORMAL TO HAVE REGRETS about a loved one now gone – woulda, coulda, shoulda done this or that. Forgive yourself any regrets! After all, you’re only just human. Knowing this was a normal response to grief was helpful to me, as I thought about other things I might have said or done while mom and dad were here. I wrote a poem about regrets after Dad’s passing – called Small Regrets.
I wanted to tell you one more time that I loved you,
and I wanted to thank you for being such a great Dad.
I wanted to thank you for Sunday drives for ice cream,
and games on rainy days.
I wanted to tell you what wonderful memories I have
of standing beside you in church singing hymns in harmony.
I wanted to thank you for driving two hours in a rainstorm
to bring a book I left behind –
that you thought I needed for a college class.
I wanted to thank you for so proudly escorting me
down the aisle at my wedding – and to my 20th high school reunion
when my husband was out of town.
I wanted to thank you for teaching me to drive a car,
to sing, and to laugh back at life’s hurdles,
all of which have been useful to me in my life.
I wanted to tell you again that we would be OK –
and we would take care of Mom.
Today, my heart is filled with gratitude,
for having you with us for so long,
and for taking the opportunity when I had it –
to say “Thank you” – and “I love you”, –
but, in this hour of loss – a small part of me,
Wants to tell you – one more time – “I love you, Dad”.
4. INCORPORATE A WAY to honor the memory of the person you lost, an ornament on the tree, flowers at church. My Mother loved candles – on her dining table and in the kitchen. She always lit a candle for “travel mercies” as she called it, when any of her children were traveling – she let it burn until we arrived safely at our destination. The first Christmas she was gone, I distributed some of her candleholders to all the family, children and grandchildren. We all lit a candle for her during the holidays for travel mercies. Finding a way to honor a loved one’s memory may bring comfort.
4. KEEP TRADITIONS that have meaning for you and the family… and savor them…and let go of traditions that are too painful to keep this year.
5. TAKE ADVANTATGE of any community events that will support your need to acknowledge your feelings and the life of the person no longer with you. Our local hospice offers a holiday service in early December, specifically for families who have lost a loved one in the past year. The program is largely choral, with uplifting poems, and candles to honor individuals. One woman said every family should attend each year just to remember with love all family members who have lived before. Standing with other people in Christmas Eve service, or a community candle lighting event may bring comfort – just knowing we are part of a human community.
6. IF THE LOSS OF a loved one significantly changes how you can celebrate the holidays, start a new tradition. When our children were grown and were home only a short time during the holidays, and our parents were gone, we found ways to expand our holiday activities in new directions, for example, sharing some of our baking with the neighbors, visiting friends and acquaintences and thanking service people who do things for us every year. For example, giving cocoa and cookies to the mailman on a cold day.
7. MAKE A LIST OF foods, favorite books, friends, and places that bring you comfort and make a plan to eat them, read them and visit them.
8. SIMPLIFY YOUR LIFE during this time. Accept only invitations that bring you joy. If you are feeling a lot of stress, plan a simple menu for family dinners, reduce your shopping or order from catalogs.
9. NEW YEAR’S IS a new beginning. Start a journal this year recording your feelings, thoughts and memories as you travel along 2014.
10. AS NEW BEGINNINGS become clearer to you, set goals for the year – when you are ready to do so. For those of you who have lost a loved one this year, may you be comforted by your memories, and blessed with beginning new transitions.
Sue Marquis Bishop 2013