The coming of autumn brings with it a quickening of the rhythm of life with its promise of the special days ahead. November offers All Saints’ and All Souls’ days when many gather to remember their deceased loved ones through ceremony, grief workshops and Masses of Remembrance. Though sometimes painful, those gatherings can bring a semblance of consolation to those who grieve.
But as the days grow shorter, the whisper of the upcoming holidays with their implied festivities and glittery invitation to joy begins to beg for the attention of those with broken hearts. What do we, the anxious grief-struck, do to survive the holidays when our deceased loved one’s chair sits empty?
Whether we are newly bereaved or have weathered a few holidays without our loved one, there are some tidbits of truth that can help us put our grief in perspective, especially as a special holiday, birthday or anniversary approaches.
I remember well, that first Christmas my girls and I spent without their father. Trent had died in a car accident in September of that year and I was still reeling from the shock. As the season approached and I was again witness to the sights and sounds of the commercialization of Christmas, I asked myself how in the world I would ever make it through in one piece.
There were people in my life then that nudged me to remember that life must go on and I must get over “it” for the sake of my girls. There were those who did not understand how life had changed so dramatically with the death of my husband and were put off by my reluctance to join in the festivities. And, mercifully, there were those who gently taught me that, with support and a little hope, following my heart would get me through even the worst of times.
Each of us is the expert of his or her own grief journey. Though we bereaved walk the universal path of grief, we each step to our own timing. Listening graciously to the suggestions of others can help us formulate how we chose to grieve, but I have learned that discovering what my own heart tells me usually leads me down the right path.
Discovering my own style of grieving, especially during the holidays, I found that following regular holiday traditions can be painful without our loved one. I believe we can modify or eliminate any activity for a time or even establish a new tradition to help us through. We are not required to attend any function with which we are uncomfortable. But we must be mindful not to isolate ourselves during this special time with family and friends. Our hearts will help us chose what’s best for us.
That first Christmas, I chose to decorate as in years past but with less flair, and attend most of the family gatherings replete with gifts and baked goods. Though it held little joy for me, my girls reveled in the “normalcy” of it. And that renewed my hope for our lives in the future. But I know others who chose to travel over the holidays in hopes of creating a new and meaningful tradition in honor of their loved one.
Of course, those of us who have experienced a loss know that grief is messy. Its chaos comes unpredictably and with no order. We move in and out of our emotions as the need takes us. So during the holidays we can prepare ourselves with the awareness of the possibility of rising and falling feelings and how we will respond to them. I have found that an action plan can assist us in our self care. I learned to excuse myself from any activity when feeling overwhelmed. When I felt more settled I simply returned and carried on. I embrace the importance of making time to shed those persistent tears and gather myself in those situations.
In anticipation of the stress of the holidays or when the rollercoaster of emotions get the most of us, it’s okay to seek support. Confide in a compassionate friend or family member, who will listen without judgment, or join a support group. Many churches offer closed-ended grief support groups through the holidays and there are ongoing grief support groups through churches, hospitals, hospices and private counselors.
With that said, I have also discovered that it’s okay to allow ourselves to have a little fun as well. Our loved ones would desire that for us as we remember them with special care.
I have learned that it doesn’t really matter how long our loved one has been gone. There will always be days, especially the glittering holidays that cause our grief to rise to the surface in renewed ways. It’s during those times that we must be extra gentle with ourselves and allow those feelings to be worked through with hope for healing. It will be only then that we can look back and see that we have indeed survived the holidays and maybe even found a little joy.