It starts earlier every year it seems. Holiday decorations hit the shelves even before Halloween has come and gone. As though you need more reminders that the holidays are coming. Looming.
This time of year adds an extra measure of pain to people already bearing more than they can, more than they should ever have to. There is the empty seat at the table, the heaviness of all the ways the one you love is missing, traditions that have gone flat, smacking against the empty place.
Death, illness, massive life events – they all sour the season in ways those outside your loss can’t understand.
Whether you’ve always loved the holidays, or avoided them as best you could, the first several seasons after a loss or big life event can well and truly suck. So many people want to make this a “good” holiday for you. Part of your family wants traditions to stay exactly the same, others want to change everything. Conflicting desires, broken hearts, lots of attention when you’d rather just hide in your blanket fort until the whole thing is over – it’s too much.
Given that this season is going to be rough, how will you survive?
Here are some of my holiday survival rules from my own early days:
Say No a lot. Really. Other people will tell you you should say yes to things, get out more, be social. You know what? No. If “being social” gives you the hives, why on earth would you do that? Remember that “no” is a complete sentence. You can say “no, thank you” if you must say more.
Choose your gatherings carefully. If you choose to attend something a party or an event, choose wisely and follow best safe health practices. Sometimes a crowd is easier than a small gathering, because you can slip out un-noticed as you need to. While a small gathering might have been most comfortable in your life Before, those intimate things can feel more like a crucible now, with people watching to see how you’re doing.
Find companionship. Or find ways to be alone-together with others. Grief is a lonely experience. Companionship, reflection, and connection are vital parts of surviving grief. We need each other. Musical offerings, candlelight meditations or services — check local newspapers and community websites to see what’s going on in your area. Remember to follow best safe health practices for public events.
A fantastic place to be alone-together with people who really get grief is in the Writing Your Grief e-course and wider alumni community. We’ve always got room for you. Click here to join our community.
Volunteer. The first Thanksgiving after Matt died, I volunteered in the local soup kitchen. It was an “acceptable” reason for not attending family obligations, and also a way I could serve others in my own quiet way.
Check in with yourself. Not just for events & gatherings, but for every moment of life: check in with yourself. Take a minute to breathe, one good inhale/exhale, and ask yourself how you’re doing. Ask yourself what you need. Maybe the piped in Christmas music at the grocery store is too much. Maybe you need to leave right now—abandon that cart in the aisle. Or maybe you feel like you can put your emotional blinders on and push through, sing yourself some other song to blot out the noise. Give yourself what you need in that moment.
Consent is important in all things. If you have a friend or relative who consistently tries to talk you our of your “no,” you might respond by calling them out on their coercion: “I keel telling you no, and you keep trying to convince me that I’m wrong. I need you to respect my decision. Friends and family get to feel disappointed if you say no to them, but they don’t get to force you to say yes.
Make new rituals. The holidays – your traditions and your rituals – don’t have to look like what they used to be. Rituals are living things, they shift and change, just as live does. Allow yourself to let go of both expectation and tradition, because this is not a normal time. Your holiday rituals can—and maybe should—reflect your new reality.
Have a plan before you go out. Before you go to a party or an event, or out to run an errand, be sure to make your exit plan clear — with yourself. Give yourself an out, whether that is a specific time limit or an emotional cue that lets you know it’s time to go. Stick to your plan.
LEAVE WHENEVER YOU WANT. Please remember that this is your life. You do not have to do anything that feels bad or wrong or horrifying. Even if you agreed to participate in something, you can change your mind at any time. Stop whatever you’re doing and go home whenever you want.
Another way to find companionship during the holidays (or any ordinary day) is with my new guided grief journal: How to Carry What Can’t Be Fixed is a safe place to let your grief take up the space it needs. With writing prompts to help you honor your pain & heartbreak, on-the-spot practices for tough situations (e.g. grocery store trips, sleepless nights, grief landmines, & being the “awkward guest”), practical advice for handling big emotions & uncomfortable questions, and so much more—this journal isn’t like any other.
It also contains lots of handy tools, like tear-and-share resources to help educate friends and family on how to best support you inside your grief.
The holidays are going to hurt, my love. That is just reality. Whether you are missing someone who should be part of the festivities, or you are missing someone who shared your love of quiet acknowledgement over raucous partying, this season will add some to your grief.
Please remember, whatever you choose to do (or not do) this holiday season, staying true to yourself is important. Companion yourself. Care for yourself. Listen to yourself. Reach out where it feels good to reach, curl in when that is what you need. Make this season as much of a comfort to you as you can.
Struggling through the holidays sucks. Please share this post in your online communities. Every day, more people enter the world of grief. Sharing this post helps them find the support they need. Let’s make our love and support, our companionship inside grief, really easy to find. Click the share buttons at the bottom of the post.Please remember, whatever you choose to do (or not do) this holiday season, staying true to yourself is important. Companion yourself. Care for yourself. Listen to yourself. Click To Tweet
How about you? What are some things you find useful for getting through the holidays? What is your biggest challenge coming into this season? If the holidays are no longer particularly hard for you, can you look back and see what helped? Let us know in the comments.