Here are five ways to celebrate the holidays when you’re in grief and have lost a loved one. Celebrating might seem impossible when you’re in grief, and yet these “special” days come whether we want them to or not, and must be endured.
There’s an empty chair at the table; an empty stocking on the hearth, silence where once laughter rang. Remembering those who are gone cannot be ignored when revisiting traditions that may even have been shaped by them, for them, around them. The missing are the ghosts of Christmas past.
And every grief is unique.
Grief for when a child’s lifelong friend dies has a special heft, shape and feel: it’s a meteorite that comes out of a clear blue sky and smashes the world of memories that surrounds their childhood, ever-altering that precious landscape. I didn’t know my children’s friend Everett Allen as well as I did many of their friends; he had a happy, loving, successful family and no need to move into our home for vicarious belonging as some others did. But Everett was someone my kids loved deeply, someone who always lifted their spirits; someone they admired. His family home, way up on the side of Haleakala, was where they went to hang out, year after year, during breaks and holidays and every personal vacation return to Maui through college and beyond.
Everett was a young man of irrepressible humor and strong passions. He’d get an idea or interest, and throw himself into it one hundred percent. In ninth and tenth grade, rats were a huge interest. He raised them, and I still remember him, a gangly kid with a prematurely deep and compelling voice and a lot of wild hair, convincing me to let my then-teen daughter keep one of his rats.
“Rats are super intelligent,” he said. “They love people and being handled.” He demonstrated the large, black-and-white rat’s charm by showing me how it crawled up his arm and nested on the top of his head, peeking out from his bushy hair like a prairie dog. I had to laugh, and of course, I let my girl keep the rat, signing up the laundry room for an ever-present smell of rat pee. But the rat was smart and affectionate, ever to be found nestled in her bra with its head protruding out the neck of her shirt, or cuddled in the crook of her shoulder as she did homework.
I remember Everett’s flamboyant voice, heard over others as the kids played Mario Kart downstairs in my son’s room in high school. Bursts of laughter followed everything he said, making me smile as I fixed snacks upstairs as was my role. He made my kids happy; thus I loved him.
It was that simple.
Everett’s brash, upbeat, unapologetic and unconventional boldness to “follow his own drummer” freed my children, and their extended friend group, to be secure in their oddities, too. “He was a berserker,” my son said when he called to tell me that Everett had been killed in a motorcycle accident a few months ago. “Of all people, I thought he’d live forever; he loved life that much.”
“He will live forever,” I said. “Just a little sooner than the rest of us.” I can’t imagine his family’s grief this holiday season; I don’t want to because it makes my heart hurt so much.
My father-in-law was also named Everett. It’s not a name you hear a lot anymore; that I’ve known two seems to mean something. I met my father-in-law thirty-five years ago and experienced, from that first day, a man who extended to me total acceptance and rough affection. He was prematurely white-haired with keen brown eyes; he seemed made of leather, iron and bone.
Everett liked his smokes, cards, fix-it projects and fishing pole. A man of few words and sharp dry wit, he was unbelievably competent at everything he did. He passed his many skills on to my husband, thus benefiting me. He was the epitome of a father of his generation: a provider who showed his love by doing.
The loss of my father-in-law rippled through his four children this last year and pulled the center right out of the family. My mother-in-law, diminished mentally and unable to be independent since his death, has needed ongoing support and monitoring—and thus we came to California.
Sometimes an empty chair creates a vortex that pulls a family into a whole new constellation.
And then there’s the loss of a spouse, a devastating situation I pray I never experience. This year, several friends of mine have lost their beloveds to untimely causes. Filling not only an empty chair but an empty side of the bed seems overwhelming.
There’s divorce, another form of loss, and also devastating. Dear friends die of illness or accident, and disappear from pastimes that always held them. The loss of a beloved pet creates an emptiness by the hearth.
How can we get through these holidays, and still “celebrate”?
- Acknowledge the pain. Make room for it. Admit it. Reach out to others and tell them about the struggle and let them carry a little of the burden. Cry on the shoulders of friends.
- Create a ritual that acknowledges the lost loved one. It might be an actual chair at the table with a round of toasts in memory; a candle lit at church, a walk in the beloved’s favorite woods reminiscing, a sharing of photos that become a part of a new tradition.
- Change expectations and traditions. Don’t expect this holiday, or any ever after, to be the same, and embrace that. Start new traditions when you are ready to so that the memories of the past can sweeten rather than wound. If your old tradition was baking with a loved one who’s lost, now go do that at church instead, and contribute the baked goods to the needy. Be creative to take what you loved from the past and do something new with it so that you don’t re-experience the loss over and over.
- Stay in the moments, and watch them pass by. When overwhelmed with memory and emotion, breathe through it. Allow the grief to move through you, over you, around you, in you, recognizing that you are not your feelings. They will come and go, and it’s all okay. This is your grief, and there is no shortcut. Ground yourself in the here and now and notice the sensory details: where you are, what things feel like, taste like, look like. Noticing the here and now reminds you that while you live, all is not lost. This too shall pass, and joy may yet come in the morning.
- Be kind to yourself and others. Now is the time for lots of gentle indulgence. Naps. Extra time to get from here to there. A slower pace. Margins. Reduce your tasks to only that which feels truly good to you to participate in, and be kind to someone else. Giving or doing for others reminds us we aren’t alone; whatever our loss, there are others who’ve suffered what we have, and more. Giving is the ideal distraction. When in doubt, give some more.
I hope you’ve found some ideas here that will help you get through this holiday season and find some meaning, joy and beautiful moments—and if not, just know you are not alone in weathering a season of loss.
Do you have any ideas to share that might help someone else struggling with grief at the holidays?
I loved this! It was 8 yrs ago that my daughter & I had to spend our first Christmas without my husband, her dad. Christmas was always a big deal to him. He loved to make it special for his girls. I let my daughter spend Christmas evening with her friends while I sat & watched the DVD we had made of his life, with tears streaming down my face. It also brought back memories of losing my own father at 15 and how my mom would go out of her way to make up for his loss in our lives. Since that Christmas, I’ve tried to make my daughter’s Christmas’ special in different ways, yet never forgetting her father.
mahalo Debbi, it’s a balance, isn’t it?
Thank you for writing this. So much of preparing for the holidays seems to be about Christmas music, presents, family get-togethers… but the truth is that there are a lot of people who suffer at this time, even more acutely than at other times. Anything that helps those people feel comforted, heard, and supported will help save lives. I just heard of a young man who took his own life a few days ago. I’m going to retweet this/post this and be part of the conversation that gives people hope.
Thank you, Andrea. I appreciate your thoughtful support!