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Living Through The Holidays

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The holidays are too often a painful reminder of your changed life and the death of your loved one. They may force you to realize how much your life has changed. Holidays certainly may not feel festive — they may feel more like a spotlight painfully illuminating your sense of emptiness, aloneness and broken heart.

How can you move from hiding or surviving to living through the holidays?

Start by acknowledging that the holidays may be difficult and will be different from the way things were in the past, before your loss. Prepare for it in advance by making specific plans and obtaining support.


Be compassionate and loving to yourself. It’s important to discover what you need and to communicate that to others. Give yourself permission to do what is comfortable.

It’s okay to discuss new plans to fit the changing circumstances in your life.

For some people, keeping old traditions this year may feel too painful and intensifies the feeling of absence. Instead of tying to celebrate the holidays as you always have, create new rituals to remember and honor your loved. Honoring is a form of grieving and healing. As you honor your loved one, it takes you from intense grief to feelings of love and connection.

For others, it creates a sense of comfort to have rituals that are the same as the past. Ask yourself what will feel most comforting to you. Which traditions would you like to keep? Which ones do you want to let go of this year? You may want to go away and do something completely different. That’s okay too.

The holidays affect everyone. Your family members and friends are also grieving. Discuss your plans and needs with your family and friends and listen to their needs. There may be compromises to find the most comfortable place for you to get through. Consider allowing other people into your life and to share your pain. You can ask others to help you. Give someone a gift of being there for you.

When you accept that your needs are important then you can go into the holiday more open and receptive.

How can you be both loving and self compassionate during the holidays?

The first step is to discover what you are experiencing and feeling instead of feeling pressure to please others. Only then can you let them know what you need this year. Talk to someone you trust to assist you in gaining clarity.

Here are some ideas to help you on your way.

  1. Experience and Express Emotion: Accept that you will miss your loved one and feel all of the feelings of grief. Allow yourself to feel numbness, sadness, anger or any emotion that arises. It’s okay to shed tears, inside or out. If you allow the emotion to surface and be expressed then you’ll have the energy you need to give to yourself and others. It’s okay to also feel joy or happiness. Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.
  2. Find Confidants: Find confidants who will listen and be supportive while you move through the holidays. When you have people you trust to share your grief, you will be more able to relax and be with others. You don’t have to bury or hide your grief.
  3. Give of Yourself: Extending your hand to someone else who is suffering or in need can catapult you out of yourself. You can find comfort and connection in being of service. You may want to spend time with a friend who is suffering, visit an elderly person’s home or feed the hungry. You may want to adopt a needy family during the holiday season or even invite a guest who might otherwise be alone.
  4. Talk About Your Loved One: If and when you are ready, bring up the “elephant in the room” — speak about your loved one. It will invite others and let them know that it’s okay to talk about him/her. Often, people stop talking because they don’t want to create more pain for you. As you talk about your loved one, you bring his/her presence in the room.
  5. Say “No.” It is okay to say, “No, I can’t do it this year” without feeling guilty. Get in touch with what you need and honor that. It’s okay to say “no” to others. It’s okay to say “no” to yourself. If it’s too difficult, it’s okay to not do holiday cards or other traditions this year. You’re not the same person… and life may feel overwhelming.
  6. Exit Strategy: Have an exit strategy if you make plans. Consider driving your own car so you can choose to leave when you are ready or find yourself feeling too alone or overwhelmed by the situation or your grief. Validate that you went in the first place.
  7. Stay Present: Live in the moment by being aware of your five senses. Be aware of and take deep breaths. This will help to bring you to the present moment in your body and the room. This is called “mindfulness.” For example, if you are at a holiday meal and you are missing your loved one and thinking about the past, then you are not enjoying the moment. You are not in the present. Take deep slow breaths and look around. Notice what you see. You may see your grandchildren being silly at the dinner table, your son or daughter happily talking to their mate or across the table, your close friend who you have adored for years. You may hear music in the background, smell the different aromas of food, experience the different taste in your mouth and feel the soft cloth napkins in your lap. There can be much joy in living in the moment. It’s the one place that you have some control and sometimes, a sense of gratitude.
  8. Gratitude List: Write down what you are grateful for in your life, today or even just this moment. As you cultivate gratitude in your life, you are less likely to focus only on what is missing or wrong with your life.
  9. Nurture Yourself: How can you nourish and reconnect to yourself right now? Perhaps you can enjoy being in nature, sing or listen to music, exercise, do yoga, take a walk, dance, meditate or pray, attend your synagogue or church, take a warm bubble bath, play with your children/grandchildren, spend time with your pet, enjoy good and healthy foods, etc.
  10. Take good care of yourself by eating well and moderately eating the “goodies” and drinking spirits.

Before the holidays, plan how you want to honor your loved one and what traditions you want to keep or change/add. Next year you get to decide again. What may work one year may not work another. As we honor our loved one, we keep their memory and spirit alive. Here are some new ideas that can perhaps become a new tradition:

  1. Have a place at the table for your loved one or put his/her picture on the table with candles to represent his/her light being present.
  2. Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations.
  3. Cook their favorite dishes for the holiday.
  4. Wrap up some of their belongings and giving them as gifts to family and friends who would appreciate them.
  5. Create a memory box by asking each guest to write down memories on a piece of paper about their loved one. Take time to share these memories. Every year the memory box can be taken out and the memories can be read and new ones can be added.
  6. Throw a flower into the ocean in memory of your loved one and watch it float to sea.
  7. Have everyone share a gratitude… the memories and the feelings of love in our hearts can never be taken away.
  8. Make a toast in his/her memory before the festivities begin.
  9. Make a memorial ornament and or have the children create ornaments for your loved one for decoration.
  10. Give a tree to a school or a park in his/her memory or plant it in the backyard.
  11. Donate to a charity that your loved one was passionate about.
  12. Play your loved one’s favorite music.
  13. Have a photo album or pictures out so the holiday guests may reminisce and tell stories.

The holidays inspire an array of feelings. Give yourself permission to feel them all. This may be a difficult time and you may feel more triggered than usual. When you do, bring yourself back to the present moment and breathe deeply. Ground yourself by saying out loud what you’re feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling or tasting. This will calm you. It is normal if one your five senses brings back a memory that you haven’t thought about for a while. Be more loving, gentle and nurturing during this time of year. Do what feels right for you. Honor your loved one and yourself. Know that you are not alone; others are also walking the path this holiday while missing their loved ones.

By Bettina A. Schneiderman, M.A., LMFT