As we approach the holiday season, it might be helpful to know that if you are in grief its ok to feel like the whole holiday thing just sucks.  It reminds us of what we have lost.  Holidays are like everyday without our loved one, but with a big thick highlighter over bolded print that reads “THIS IS HARD!”

Likewise, if you are not in grief, but know someone who is, please also know that no matter how dressed up that person is, how festive he or she appears, how much they seem to be doing “fine” there is a part of that person that is not fine, and may never be.  

When we are grieving we may put on a good show.  We may look ok on the outside.  But on the inside we may be working even harder usual to mask our pain during holiday time.  We know the pressure is about to increase, so we try in different ways to launch a pre-emptive strike before the festivities, trying to ward off attacks from grief gremlins. Fake it until you make it right?

I share this because I am about to experience my 24th holiday season without our Daughter Alexis and it never gets easier.  There are things I have learned to layer into my holiday schedule that make it bearable, but waking up on Christmas morning without our Daughter and also without our Son Emanuel who died at birth in 2002, just sucks.

I am not sharing my experience to bring doom and gloom into the festive season.  But rather, to empower you to know that it is ok to feel badly.  And if you are supporting someone who has had loss, to give you that insight that they might be buttoned up pretty well, but inside they might be screaming “Get me outta here!” Or “Can’t we just get past this day?!”  Or “What is the shortest path from here to my bed where I can hide?”

Grief is so isolating that we mostly don’t even talk about this, especially if like in my life, the losses were relatively long ago.  Honestly, very few people even ask me about Alexis or Emanuel during the holidays.  I’ve spent many years white knuckling my way through the last two months of each year, numbing with whatever anesthetizing agent I could find.  I remind myself that once January hits, it will be back to “status quo” grieving and the pressure somewhat dissipates until next November.

If this post content has landed so far, and you want to leave it at what I have already shared, thanks for reading.  But if you are interested in some of the holiday strategies I have employed that have made the season more bearable, here are a few:

  1. Make space for your grief so it doesn’t “sneak attack” you when you aren’t looking.  

One way I have done this in the past is to attend the annual Compassionate Friends Candlelight Service in December.  Another, is to carve out time for myself to walk, meditate, pray, and just be with my grief.  I have started many Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings with an early solo walk or run.  I also have candle lighting rituals of my own that bring a sense of calm to my environment.  An advanced trip to the cemetery to make some space is also (so hard but) effective.

Whatever you do, take Stephen Covey’s advice and “Be Proactive.”  A mantra I lean on to remind myself to make this space is “Deal with my grief, or my grief will deal with me.”  I know this to be true for me, because as many times as I have tried to hold on tight and “get through” without making space in advance, is the exact number of times it all came crashing down as it inevitably does, in the form of a breakdown. And with zero regard for where I was at the time.

2. Schedule your plans in advance.

First, get curious about what, if any part of the holiday season even seems enjoyable.  Maybe there is a particular friend, a tree lighting ceremony, specific music or a traditional event that you or someone else hosts every year, that you actually like participating in.  

Use THAT as an anchor to plan around.  And if there is NOTHING that brings you Joy, you may want to plan to stay in bed and watch TV all day in your pajamas.  No shame in that game.   But having some things lined up on your calendar will ground all the free falling feelings that emerge in between.Volunteer.

Perhaps I should have led with this one, as it is the absolute fastest way to neutralize grief, by way of converting pain into generosity.  Taking the focus off of ourselves is the most direct route I have identified to give my pain a space that is productive.

For example, several Christmas seasons ago, I collaborated with a few close friends and their children.  We asked the kids to tell their Grandparents that in lieu of stocking stuffers, they would like Target Gift Cards.  We collected them in advance.  Then made dozens of handmade cards for Children with positive expressions on them, and encouraging messages.  All five children, and three moms drove to Children’s Hospital in WDC a day or two before Christmas and delivered the cards and gifts.

3. Donate.

Monetary donations can also be powerful.  You can make them in honor of your lost loved one, even if you keep your intentions private.  You can also donate clothing, food and other resources to local charities.  I initiated a Food Bank drive many years ago, and asked that everyone who joined us for Thanksgiving bring a food or monetary donation.  

You bet, I pass that cup every year!  Then I wait for “Giving Tuesday” to donate it all as one lump sum.  Many charities have anonymous donors on “Giving Tuesday” who will match all contributions (that is the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, btw.)  So $100 becomes $200 and so on.  The food bank reports that they can provide roughly 3 meals for every dollar.  By all of us pitching in our change and cash, before we know it we just helped provide 600 meals.  I don’t tell everyone this is in honor of my children, but I know, and it gives me something to focus on.  I have developed a list of friends who send me money each year also, just because they know I will be organizing this.

4. Adopt:

Adopt a cause, a pet, a patient, an organization.  Rather than the widespread generosity of donating (which is awesome but somewhat impersonal) you could choose to sponsor a specific family, shelter, or charity (like Hospice) that resonates more personally.  

The first Christmas after Alexis died, her Dad and I reached out to some nurses we knew at Children’s Hospital.  We asked if they could identify a little girl in need that we could make a nice Christmas for.  We got her wish list (which I remember, from 1997, included a pillow and a blanket.)  Even though I couldn’t shop for my own Daughter, it gave me comfort to engage in this more personal form of generosity.  We delivered the items, along with toys and other gifts for additional pediatric patients on the unit, and drove them there Christmas Eve.  I couldn’t face Midnight Mass which had been our tradition.  This gave me something to focus on.

5. Sleep

Give yourself the rest you need.  We don’t talk a lot about the physical exhaustion that comes with grief, but it is real.  Resting and rebooting as much as possible gives me a better chance at feeling physically good when I do make a social commitment.

There is no one way to manage grief through the holidays.  There are things I do annually that are the same, and others that I let go of, or try for the first time.  It doesn’t matter WHAT you do.  Just that you give yourself permission to let these parts of you have space so you can free up the work it takes to hide them, and make room for some fun and even new traditions to take shape. That way, even though we are sure the holidays will suck, there might be something good that shows up too!

Happy Holidays!

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