The holiday season is a time of year like none other. Family gatherings, gift giving, time off from work and school, and solemn moments of spiritual and religious deepening usually fill the late Novembers and Decembers of our lives with great joy – unless, that is, we have suffered a loss. We may have suffered the loss of a loved one by natural causes, an act of terrorism, a homicide, suicide, or terminal illness or accident. Or we may have suffered a living loss where nobody died but the life we had been living ended after a divorce, debilitating illness, accident, health crisis, estrangement, addiction or disappearance of a family member, natural disaster, or outbreak of war in or near our homeland.
In times of loss the holidays often become a time of inescapable pain and sorrow. Despite all the effort that goes into making the holidays special, the fear, anger, lostness, confusion, yearning and despair is inescapable. Figuring out how to get through the low tides, title waves, and tsunamis and somehow go on with our lives takes every ounce of strength, faith, courage we have. When the wind has been taken out of our sails and they prove to not be enough, we’re forced to summon newfound strength just to survive.
Navigating the holidays and getting ready to begin another year has been overwhelming for a new client of mine whose son was just murdered. Regularly scheduled holiday gatherings with family rituals, feasts, and renewals of faith with family members coming together from a four-state area, was now in question. The things that had been a source of joy and brought his brothers, sister, and their children together for so many years, now seemed like a formula for disaster. The false hope that coming together would help he and his wife begin to heal together with the relentless commercialization of the holidays as a time of joy, made this once sacred time of joy feel like a time of unending sorrow.
So how do we navigate the holidays when faced with grief, sorrow, heartache, and uncertainty? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Self-Care is Essential. Let go of the pressure you may be feeling to recreate the past. Grant yourself permission to opt out or modify the holiday rituals and gatherings that have provided great value in the past but may not be sensible or wise right now.
- Schedule a time to talk with your family about the holidays. Calmly and patiently listen to what each of them has to say about what they feel it might be good to do, and not to do, during the holidays. Then, calmly hare your thoughts with them.
- Give your family some time to process it all and decide what you’re going to do. Allow each family member to decide what might be best for them and give them your support.
- Create simple and flexible plans to manage the logistics of the days and weeks that lie ahead as individuals and as a family.
- Create a simple and flexible plan to support your emotional well-being at this profoundly vulnerable and difficult time.
- Get the support that you need, especially if you’re not accustomed to asking for help. Find a trusted confidant with whom you can vent, cry, rail and explore your options. Schedule time with them.
- Allow grief, sorrow, fear, memories, and yearnings to arise. Give yourself permission to find constructive outlets for expressing each of them.
- Adopt a “No Pressure, Guilt, or Pleasing” self-care policy. Say “no” to things that don’t align with your needs, values, and timing. Say “yes” to things that feel right and lighten your heart.
- Stay ahead of the pain curve by getting adequate rest, exercise, nutrition, support, and communication.
- Discern between the things over which you have choice and those that are choiceless. Don’t try to control the uncontrollable.
- Listen patiently without admonishment and criticism to your sorrow, fear, and uncertainty. Doing this will help you make good choices grounded in critical thinking and well-processed feeling.
- Be kind, patient, supportive, encouraging, courageous, and compassionate with yourself, rather than critical, impatient, condemning, and judgmental. Even more important than getting through the holidays, it will allow you to slowly become the better, stronger, more courageous and trusting version of yourself.
When faced with the deep sorrows of a loss, it’s essential to practice self-compassion, listen attentively to your heart, clarifying and prioritize what’s most important, quiet the internal noise in your mind, and do things that clear rather than clutter the path forward. Granting yourself permission to be vulnerable, honest, and human creates the safety that we need to begin healing after a loss of any kind.
The guidelines that I write about in my book, How We Go On, called “The Eight Honoring’s” can help you choose a path of honor as you learn to navigate birthdays, holidays, and angel-versaries. Following them, you will find peace in the face of loss, experience the love that never dies, write new chapters of life, and create new memories.