Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is muster the strength to celebrate the holidays after a loved one has died. There is little difference if the friend or family member died a year ago or if the loss occurred just recently. Warring feelings of grief, guilt and anger just don’t seem to lend themselves to create an overflow of holiday cheer. If it is you who must face the painfully empty chair at the table this holiday season, please give yourself permission to sit this one out. On the other hand, if you want to go ahead and get in the swing of celebrating the holidays in a new way, there are a number of tips and tricks that make the celebration bearable and perhaps even enjoyable.
Let go of the stiff upper lip. You may have been holding it together for the kids, the family members or the circle of friends; quit it! Get together with a mature friend, a BFF, a significant other or even a paid counselor to talk through the ‘what if’s’ of celebrating the holidays after the death of a loved one. What if you actually had fun? What if you break down at the dinner table? What if you suddenly decide you don’t want to go through with it? What if the kids seem to have forgotten their dad, sibling or grandma? What if someone says something tactless? Get the fears – and some of the anger over the ‘what if’s’ — out of your system. In fact, the American Hospice Foundation urges those still grieving to let others know that they are not yet over the loss; it helps friends and family members to be sensitive and also to look for moments when a hug is the only thing that helps.
Create new memories. Holidays after death are as much about going on as they are about turning a new leaf. Slightly deviate from traditions to create new memories that are not associated with someone who has passed on. Perhaps rather than opening Christmas presents in the morning, why not open them in the afternoon? If Easter was traditionally a time for ham, why not make it a turkey, instead? If Thanksgiving dinner was always at mom’s house, why not have it at grandma’s house this year? Shake up the traditional way of doing things even just a little bit. It keeps the trappings of the holiday alive while at the same time not placing you in a rut that has you remembering the loss at every turn.
Give of yourself. If the grief is simply too fresh to go on with celebrating the holidays, why not take the time and give of yourself? Help out at a homeless shelter, a children’s hospital or a volunteer organization that takes holiday meals to needy families. The reasoning is two-fold: on the one hand it still has you doing something special for the holidays, but on the other hand it takes time away from focusing on the loss and perhaps self-medicating with alcohol or pills. In the process, being around people who do not expect you to put on a show (like your family might make you feel), is a cathartic experience that might even help you beyond the holiday season.
Incorporate the memories into the celebration. It is absolutely acceptable to have an empty chair at the table for the first holiday after the death. Thereafter, a special photo of the loved one should be part and parcel of the holiday décor. Some families choose a special picture just for the occasion; for example, we have a special holiday memory of grandma that we like to put up in its frame just for the Christmas season. It includes the spirit of the loved one and does away with the awkwardness of having nobody mentioning the name.
American Hospice Foundation: “Coping with Holidays and Family Celebrations”
More by Sylvia Cochran:
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Signs of Disease and Illness in the Mona Lisa and Other Old Paintings
Online Communities of the Dead: Social Network Pages of Deceased MySpace and Facebook Users