Grieving during the holidays

Tips to Surviving the Year After the Death of a Relative or Friend

Editor’s Note: This article originally was published on before this Thanksgiving. 

When you reflect on your childhood holiday memories, feelings of warmth and love might swell inside you. You might recall the succulent taste of your mom’s turkey or the thrill of ripping the wrapping paper off your gifts from Santa.

As we age, our holiday memories tend to be replaced by new traditions, new wants, and new attitudes, and the people who once surrounded us tend to change.

When we were little, my big brother would be the first person out of bed and into the living room where he would be found shaking packages and raiding his stocking. Either he or my parents would wake me, and we would all gather around the living room to open presents. Later in the day, my uncle, a man I considered my second father, would make his 30-minute journey to the house with his own offerings for us kids and my parents. He also partook annually in my mother’s Thanksgiving feasts.

I am now grateful that my dad insisted on videotaping our holiday festivities, because, since those warm, childhood days, the loved ones present on my Thanksgiving and Christmas Day have dwindled by two.

This will be my family’s fourth season since my father’s death and fifth since my uncle’s passing.

As my family and I enter the upcoming holiday season, I know we are not alone.

Whether your grief is fresh or has seasoned, here are some ways we have gotten through the last few years. I hope these suggestions can help you as well. Please note that I respect all holidays in the season and hope those who don’t celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving will still benefit from this article.

It’s OK to be angry, sad, or even a bit envious.

From peppy songs playing through the mall’s speakers to mushy movies screening on the Hallmark Channel, the holidays are often depicted as one of the brightest, grandest times of the year. Your coworkers and friends might discuss their hunts for the perfect gifts or chatter about their plans for their tremendous family gatherings.

While happiness seems to surround you, you may feel low and cheated. You may feel heavy-hearted as you think about enduring another or the first holiday without your relative or dear friend beaming at you from across the table. You might be a bit envious that your coworkers and friends appear so free of sorrow, while a pesky dark cloud looms over you.

It is OK to have those thoughts. It is OK to get mad. It is OK to cry, to feel that twinge of jealousy, to mourn what once was.

But it is also OK to laugh, to smile. To be excited to dig into your favorite dish at Thanksgiving or to see if that special gift awaits you under the tree.

It’s OK to be happy. Your loved one wouldn’t want it any other way.

Surround yourselves with those who are still here.

While it does hurt that your family member or friend is gone, don’t be afraid to lean on those who are still here with you, who love and support you.

Invite some friends and relatives over to the house this year. If there is a side of your family you miss, contact them, and ask if you can come up to spend the day with them.

The people who have reached out, who have visited, who have sent tokens of condolences since that heart-wrenching day, they have all shown you that they are here for you. If you reach out for their help to get through this year, they will happily do whatever they possibly can to help poke through that dark cloud and let the sun’s light beam down on you.

Plan a trip or an outing.

The first Thanksgiving without my uncle, we ate our dinner at Golden Corral.

The first Christmas without my dad, my brother, mom, and I traveled to North Carolina to tour the Biltmore Estate. (More information can be found here for those wanting to visit.)

Investigate which restaurants near you will be open or which activities will occur. Local media outlets will often report this information closer to the holiday. This information may also be found by visiting your town’s visitor center or by scrolling through your city’s tourism website.

Find a way to positively distract yourself during that day. You may wind up ravished by an eatery you’d never thought to patronize or enjoying an event that you’ve always wanted to attend.

Don’t be afraid to change traditions.

Before my dad’s passing, we always brought home a real Christmas tree. My mom eventually expressed the benefits of owning an artificial tree, but my family stuck to our tradition nevertheless.

We now pull out and put up a fake tree. Of course, we still drink eggnog while decorating it.

When you lose someone, your life changes, so shouldn’t it be OK if some of your holiday traditions change, too?

Don’t hang on to a certain activity merely out of guilt.

Once you are ready, listen to how you and your loved ones want to celebrate the day, and then test a couple of those ideas. The ideas may stick or may not. But it is OK to try.

Be open to new faces.

While people leave your life, people also enter it. Some of those individuals end up becoming new family members or new close friends and soon are sitting at your holiday table.

Last year, my brother got married. That Thanksgiving and Christmas, he joined my mom and me as always, but this time he had his wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law in tow.

Was it a bit odd to have these new guests sharing the table with us? Admittedly, yes. But these three women are now part of my brother’s life and, in turn, part of my mom’s and my lives, so my mom and I chose to approach each of the occasions with open minds.

So, while welcoming a new person might feel sort of odd, try to stay receptive to the notion. A newcomer can help move our lives forward and even has the potential to leave a positive impact.

However, you might not be quite ready to accept more people into your life. There is nothing wrong with that. If someone is meant to be there, he or she eventually will be.

Never forget.

When your heart starts to ache less and your spirits skip once again, you may not think about your deceased loved one quite as much as you did.

And, that’s OK. I go through days where I don’t think about my dad and my uncle, because my mind is focused on what’s happening in front of me, on what’s happening now.

Just because thoughts of them don’t pack our minds every second doesn’t mean we don’t miss them.

But we also should never forget them.

Even though they can no longer physically share the day with us, there are ways to commemorate the ones we miss:

  • Light a candle in remembrance of each person.
  • Clink together your glasses, and give toasts in their honor.
  • Display their pictures while you and your guests enjoy the day.
  • Bring a flower to his or her grave site if that gives you comfort.
  • Listen to a song or watch a movie that they loved.
  • Share memories with one another.

Even though each holiday season may feel a bit dreary, just like each day can feel a tad off, never let your grief consume you.

You are still here, and you deserve to live a happy, full life.

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