Tips for Handling the Holiday Season Without Loved Ones
By Abby Meaux Conques with tips provided by Hospice of Acadiana
When I think of the first holiday season without him, I get an immediate feeling to retreat. On a very personal note as an editor, we lost my Dad, my hero, suddenly and unexpectedly, late this summer. Now, Thanksgiving decor is out at Hobby Lobby and Target, and I couldn’t imagine holiday festivities at all right now…much less without him. I’ve learned that when I just don’t know which way is up, or where to turn, I look for people who do.
In this case, I turned to Hospice of Acadiana for things we can incorporate this year to get through the holiday season in the best way possible, with such a drastic change to our core family dynamic, and as tender humans who are grieving. In speaking with my husband about what a different animal it is to grieve and still do the things that need to be done in daily life (i.e. grocery shopping, laundry, errands, speaking with people professionally, etc.) he said something that stopped me in my tracks;
“Boo, every single person is grieving something. We’re all grieving.”
He unveiled a much-needed perspective to me…it was true. Death, loss, and grief (in a myriad of ways) touches all of us. That person in the grocery store could be buying flowers for their sick spouse…that woman buying a holiday gift could still be grieving the loss of her child from twenty years ago…that guy working at the post office could have just received lab results that he didn’t want to hear. For me, the bottom line is that we’re all human, and in this together, and are here to cheer each other on through the amazing things and help each other through the tough things. Even though I don’t want people to suffer, I know that it is part of the human condition, and I do feel solace in the notion that there are always other people in this world who have had similar feelings to yours, and that you are never alone in that. In speaking with licensed counselors at Hospice of Acadiana, they offered these insights to me, that I share with you in hopes of helping someone through their holiday grief, or for you to be able to recognize to help a loved one through theirs.
Some Tips for Coping with Grief During the Holidays
Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanza and New Year’s Day are annual holidays that can be a very difficult time for people who have experienced the death of someone loved, no matter how much time has passed. Memories of good times and togetherness during the holiday season serve to remind us of our loss. Watching others who are feeling thankful and are celebrating when we feel overwhelmed, lonely or sad can be very painful. Holidays force us to realize how much our lives have been changed by the loss of our loved one. Particularly in the first year, many bereaved are left with having to develop new holiday rituals and traditions.
The first step in coping with grief at the holidays is to acknowledge that the holiday season is a difficult one for many, and then to prepare for it in advance by making specific plans and obtaining the support that you need. Remember too, that sometimes anticipation of a holiday can be more difficult than the day itself.
What Can I Actively Do or Help a Grieving Loved One to Do During This Time?
1. Set realistic expectations for yourself. Remind yourself that the holidays are different. Decide if you can handle the responsibilities you’ve had in the past. Examine the tasks and events of celebrating and ask yourself if you want to continue them. Take others up on offers to cook, shop, decorate, etc. if you feel the need to. Consider shopping by phone, Internet or catalogs this year if you still feel up to gift-giving.
2. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Share your plans with family and friends and let them know of any intended changes in the holiday routine. Memories can sometimes be a source of comfort to the bereaved. Share your memories with others of holidays spent with your loved one by telling stories and looking at photo albums.
3. Try to avoid “canceling” the holiday despite the temptation. It is OK to avoid some circumstances that you don’t feel ready to handle, but don’t completely isolate yourself. Allow yourself some time for solitude, remembering and grieving, but balance it with planned activities with others.
4. Allow yourself to feel joy, sadness, anger – allow yourself to grieve. It is important to recognize that every family member has his/her own unique grief experience and may have different needs related to celebrating the holidays. No one way is right or wrong. Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.
5. Draw comfort from doing for others. Consider giving a donation or gift in memory of your loved one. Invite a guest who might otherwise be alone for the holidays. Adopt a needy family during the holiday season.
6. Take care of yourself. Avoid using alcohol to self-medicate your mood. Try to avoid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Physical exercise is often an antidote for depression. Writing in a journal can be a good outlet for your grief. Buy yourself something frivolous that you always wanted but never allowed yourself to indulge in.
7. Create a new tradition or ritual that accommodates your current situation. Some people find comfort in old traditions. Others find them unbearably painful. Discuss with your family the activities you want to include or exclude this year. Some examples of new rituals and traditions include:
• Create a memory box You could fill it with photos of your loved one or written memory notes from family members and friends. Young children could include their drawings in the memory box.
• Make a decorative quilt using favorite colors, symbols or images that remind you of the person who passed away.
• Light a candle in honor of your absent loved one at the beginning of the holiday season and allow it to burn throughout; you can use an LED candle if you’re not comfortable with a real one burning.
• Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
• Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations.
• Have a moment of silence during a holiday toast to honor your loved one.
• Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree.
• Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your loved one.
• Write a poem about your loved one and read it during a holiday ritual.
• Play your loved one’s favorite music or favorite game.
• Plan a meal with your loved ones’ favorite foods.
• Memory Tablecloth Every year, lay a special tablecloth and fabric markers or sharpies. Ask holiday guests to write down their favorite holiday memories, especially those that involve family members who are no longer present.
• Secret Signal Create a secret signal for your family members to give one another when something reminds them of the person who has died. This could be a signal used at any moment, happy or sad, throughout the year.
• Give to charity Every year chose a charity to give a gift to in your loved one’s name. Keep the same process for choosing the charity each year – maybe you decide over Thanksgiving or you gather on the first Sunday of December, for example.
• Go somewhere where you feel close to your loved one Start a tradition of visiting your loved one’s grave or another place where you feel close to them on the holiday. Choosing a designated time, like first thing in the morning, may make it easier to plan and uphold this tradition.
The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one, and that the best way to cope with that first holiday season is to plan ahead, get support from others and take it easy. Although no one’s grief is the same, you are not alone in it.
Hospice of Acadiana, Inc. is proud to serve this community and offer the finest medical care to our patients and a complete array of services to their families. Father Louis Richard remains an active member of our Board of Directors, a constant reminder of our original goal—to bring a deep commitment to care for the dying. Following the death of his grandmother while he was a seminarian studying in Belgium, Lafayette-native Father Louis Richard spent a summer working at St. Christopher’s House near London with a British physician, Dr. Cicely Saunders. Dr. Saunders is considered the founder of the modern-day Hospice movement, and it was there that Father Louie developed a deep commitment to care for the dying. Returning home to Lafayette following his ordination, Father Louis met with other community leaders and, in 1983, helped establish Hospice of Acadiana, Inc.—a nonprofit hospice committed to providing quality care at the end of life for all, regardless of their ability to pay for these services. Hospice of Acadiana, Inc. remains the ONLY nonprofit hospice in our area. We have the longest record of continuous service of any hospice in Louisiana, and, since our inception, we have served over 20,000 patients and their families.