Years after my father died, my mother told me how during the holidays in those first years without him, she would drive past homes lit up with decorations, full of people and celebrations, and how it made her miss my father and the family we once were even more. And not only was she now the breadwinner, but she still had to shop and cook and bake the cookies and wrap the presents, all without her partner, and with two surly teenages to boot!
Even under the best of circumstances the holidays can be a stressful time. For grieving individuals and families this season can be especially hard. There are not only the expectations the holiday season heaps on all of us, but there are the difficult and painful feelings of grief, all at a time when because we are grieving we literally have less physical energy and less ability to think, focus and be organized.
When we are grieving, any day of the year can be a day of missing the person who died. During the holidays, this ever present remembering can be specially poignant. We may see the perfect toy or present that we no longer need to buy, struggle to put up the lights that they use to do so perfectly, or miss them at the holiday table and the way they knew just how to make everyone laugh.
There are ways to make the holidays less overwhelming and at the same time discover ways to honor the memory of the person who died and create new meaningful traditions in the family. Here are some ideas and suggestions from Imagine and the Dougy Center , the center upon which Imagine is based. Please use whatever is helpful.
There are no “shoulds” –embrace your limitations. Grief can be all-consuming, no matter the time of year. You may not be able to do all the things you’ve always done. Consider where you might be able to cut back or change or eliminate all together. This might include shopping, decorating, sending cards or traveling.
Talk with your children and other family members. As grief is unique for everyone in your family, so are their wants and needs during this time. Involve your children in discussions about what they would like to do, including traditions they want to keep and ideas they have for changing things.
Be prepared before attending outside events or gatherings. Who will be there, how long is it expected to last, do you need to do anything to prepare for it. As a family, brainstorm ways you and your children want to respond to questions or offers of help from others and have a plan for leaving whenever you need.
Ask for concrete help. Sometimes we worry about burdening others, but more often than not, they are eager to have an opportunity to help and just need to be asked. Tell them what they can do for you such as cleaning, cooking, baking, shopping, childcare, and running errands.
Carve out time for rest. The holidays can be physically and emotionally draining for anyone, and especially those who are grieving. Encourage children to have times of rest and quiet play, along with trying to eat well and drink plenty of water.
- Light a candle in memory of the person who died. You can share a time of silence together or invite children and others to share memories or stories.
- Write a card or letter to the person who died. You can also write a card from the person who died saying exactly what you would love to hear from them.
- Keep a place setting at the table during a special holiday meal. At Imagine a holiday activity is decorating a plate in memory of the person who died and using it at the place setting or as a decoration on the mantle. Or decorate the place setting with a single flower, poem, card or memento.
- You can create a memory table or corner where you can place photos, a favorite stuffed animal, or any other kinds of mementos.
- Include a special recipe that the person loved or use to make. Food can be a great spark for talking about memories and stories.
- "In memory of our child, we dedicate the 'shammes, the 'servant' or 'pilot light' from whose flame the other Chanukah candles are lit."
- "We write special notes to my mother, put them in her Christmas stocking and then read them to one another during dinner."
- "During the meal, I ask, 'What leaps into your mind when I mention Uncle Bill.' We go around the table, starting with children to adults. It's a memorable and spontaneous stream of stories that bring enjoyment, laughter, and pleasure."
- "The chair where my grandfather always sat is given to the youngest grandchild to designate the continuity of generations."
- "My brother always munched on jelly beans, so we have a few around and remember him and smile."
- "Our sixteen-year-old son wrote a poem that he reads in his sister's memory."|
“The power and comfort of personal rituals can be therapeutic gifts. Of course, each family must decide individually how best to commemorate their loss as they celebrate the holidays. The following are suggestions of how some bereaved people have mingled their tinsel with tears.” Rabbi Grollman
Remembering my mom
Last night as I drove home from work I drove past the house where I grew up and where my mother lived until she died four years ago. In the front bay window was the new family's Christmas tree lit with little white lights and a spotlight shining on the front door wreath, just like we had growing up and the way my mom did it until she died.
Though some years we would spend Christmas Day shopping in Chinatown or seeing a Broadway show, my mom still decorated for the holidays exactly the same as when my father was alive.
As I drove past and looked into this family's home, (uncannily a single parent mom and her two kids bought the house) I felt the pangs of missing my mother and the warmth and good smells of her cooking. But now I decorate with some of those same decorations, sip my eggnog as we use to as we admired our handiwork, and inhale the smells of my own cooking reminiscent of my mother's home and my grandmother’s before that.
For me living with grief and loss is a mix of keeping some of the old traditions, recipes, and decorations, while making new memories and new traditions with my friends and the people I love.
As Barbara Coloroso, author of Parenting Through Crisis (which I think is one of the best books written for parents helping children cope with loss and tragedy,) and Kids Are Worth It wrote -- Life is hard. Life isn't fair. And life is very, very good. Living with grief is like life, it's not simple, it's not fair, and it's hard, but it can eventually also be something good.
One of the good things I’ve discovered is my own resiliency and that I can live with the juxtaposition of sadness and joy side by side. Which is ultimately what we are all called to do.