Recipe for managing grief over the holidays

Here we are once again on the verge of the holiday season, with many preparing to celebrate both secular and religious holidays in the next couple of months. Like many people who have lost someone they love, I am wary – to say the least – of what the holidays will bring and how I will feel and experience them.

This is my second round of end-of-year holidays since my brother’s death. The first round last year, despite all sorts of kind efforts from family and friends to make the season and its celebrations as enjoyable as possible, was brutal. Not having experienced this kind of loss before, I had no context for it, and could not anticipate or plan for my needs. As I stumbled from moment to moment trying to figure it out, I often found that where I was, or who I was with, or what I was doing was completely not what I needed. I couldn’t seem to discern any alternatives on the fly, though. All I could do was hold my ground, barely. It was what I would call a defensive holiday experience, unlike any I had ever had – I was smacked down over and over by waves of emotion, clutching the board for dear life, unable to navigate the water with any power, totally reactive.

Because my brother was not there, the most delightful setting could not cheer me up. As a matter of fact, everything that I saw, did, and ate that was designed to bring joy fell into the category of “things Frank should be enjoying with us,” and because that category encompassed basically everything, basically everything made me sad. The only experiences I didn’t wish Frank could share were the times I took a walk or ducked into a car so I could weep and howl and sob on my own. Everything else lay in the shadow of the absence of my brother and could not possibly glow bright.

This year, I’m hoping to be a little more proactive, a little less reactive. I am working to follow a sort

of recipe. Like any holiday recipe, my recipe has both ingredients and steps.

HOLIDAY GRIEF

Ingredients:

  • Time to be alone with your thoughts (however much as you can manage to get) and consider possibilities

  • A low-distraction environment in which your brain can do the considering

  • Your heart and intuition, to help you sort through the ideas your brain comes up with

Steps:

1. Try to figure out what you need.

2. Do your best to get some of it.

That’s it. Simple, but not at all easy. This recipe is deliberately vague and non-prescriptive because any amount of it you can manage to execute is a success if it helps you cope.

If it’s your first holiday time without someone you love, you may not have the bandwidth to try this recipe or think ahead at all about what you’ll need. You might go along with whatever is planned and experience your reactions in the moment. Maybe the best you can do is stumble through, as I did last year, and find an escape hatch when it becomes too much. If difficult emotions come up and demand your attention, consider taking a walk or a car ride alone so that you can be present with them; expecting yourself to hold it together all the way through a holiday dinner or religious service may not be realistic. And if you do fall apart in a more public setting, try not to apologize for it. You are being real, and you are doing your best. Ideally those around you will support you through it and accept where you are.

If this is not your first experience with holidays and grief, consider trying the recipe.

Step 1: Think and ask yourself questions. “What worked last time, and what didn’t? What’s different this time? What feels completely right to me? What feels wrong? Who do I want to spend this holiday with, and are those the same people with whom I need to spend this holiday? How do I balance the needs of those close to me – my children, for example, or my parents, or my partner – with my own needs, especially if what others need is different than what I need?”

Step 2: When you have an idea of what you need, do your best to get at least some of it. For example, if you have kids who need a traditional holiday at home but that feels challenging to you, build in some time alone or with a person you trust so you can let off steam. Set up times to exercise. Consider being places and doing things other than the places and things you so enjoyed with the person you miss terribly. Travel to a new destination, eat a holiday dinner in a restaurant, have tacos for Thanksgiving or spaghetti for Christmas or a movie marathon at home for New Year's Eve. Come up with something different that can become a new tradition for you and your family. Or, if you feel that you want to dive in and celebrate as you always have, go for it – but consider setting up a “plan B” if it becomes overwhelming. Ask someone to check in with you periodically to ask whether you are getting what you need.

When you do your thinking and set up a plan, whatever it involves, talk to those with whom you will share your holiday. Tell them what you want to do, talk about what might be hard, and see what they think and need. Share specific ideas and invite them to do the same. Want everyone to write a message on a construction paper leaf and put it in a bowl in the middle of the table? Want to display photos or eat your loved one’s favorite food? Want to tell stories? Want to plan nothing specific at all? See who can participate in what you need, and let all know that there is no judgment if someone doesn’t want to do something or needs time alone. Establish how important it is to respect what others need even if we don’t understand it.

Truthfully none of us can truly understand what someone else is feeling and thinking, no matter how many of us have our own losses. Each experience is individual. Each bereaved human is a unique ecosystem, a once-in-a-lifetime alchemical combination of circumstances, characteristics, connections, and emotions. We bereaved can try to be true to ourselves and do our best to communicate with others. We supporters can listen well, be present, and do our best to provide what is needed, even if it is not what we imagined would be needed.

Well then. Off I go now, to see how much of my own advice I am able to follow. Love to all of you.

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