Tips for surviving the holidays after a loss
Entering the holiday season after a loss or change in family dynamics can be an emotional adjustment or filled with obstacles to allow celebration. Often taking the first step is difficult. You find it difficult to decorate the tree, or even shop for other loved ones. You may feel hesitance or some guilt for being able to experience the holiday seasons and your loved one cannot. I have gathered a few ideas that may help you usher in the season that has meaning and even enjoyment.
For me, the holidays officially begin at Thanksgiving and continue through the New Years celebrations. I am a Christian so I celebrate Christmas. Others reading may celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other celebratory festivities. Loss is universal, and so is the pain and feelings associated with the loss. People experience loss differently, but I have found with my experience as a nurse for over 20 years, entering the holiday season is usually awkward or even dreaded especially the first year after the loss of a loved one.
I remember when my son was in Iraq my husband and I had our 25th Wedding Anniversary. My other children wanted to celebrate but I could not do this with my son in Iraq. I felt like I didn't have the right to celebrate when he was going through what he was going through in the war. That year at Christmas I had a hard time putting up the Christmas tree or even buying presents because I just didn't know how to celebrate the holidays and didn't want to until he was home safe and sound. Although my son came home alive (and I am very blessed and thankful for this because I know many others did not), I felt a sense of loss and guilt that I was celebrating and he was fighting for his life and ours. That year I did manage to find the strength to put up the tree, and enjoy Christmas with my husband, children, and grandchildren. We celebrated again when he returned home two weeks later.
1. Grieving can be very crippling. So my first tip is to give yourself permission to grieve and acknowledge your pain. This is real and doesn't need to be overlooked or covered up. Share with those close to you how your are feeling. Realize that everyone goes through the stages of grieving and you are normal to experience these. These stages are isolation and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These are known as the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
2. Call on family and friends to help you with tasks. If you normally decorated a tree with the person who is no longer here, call on other friends or family members to help with this event. Shop with others. Surround yourself with those who love you and want to support you. You may have a tendency want to withdraw, but resist the isolation.
3. Attend a memorial service if there is one near you. Many times the local hospice groups will have a memorial service. One thing I did every year as the manager of a cancer center was to hold a memorial service for the families of the loved ones we had lost in the cancer center. I didn't limit the amount of family member who were able to attend. We would start out having a few songs. There were always children there, so we sang fun songs for them. We played games, and even had door prizes. Great food was catered, and then we had the memorial service. A very special time for each family to have their loved ones name mentioned, and they lit a candle in memory of them. We had the lights down low, and at the end the room was filled with the light of the loved ones. It was so awesome, but it was also a way for people to enter the holiday season.
4. More on lighting the candles. That idea came from a co-worker at the hospital where I worked. This was something that was done for her the year her father died. You obtain a large white candle. When you decorate make sure you have that candle included in the process. You can place pictures of your loved one and flowers or what ever you want to place in that area. During any events or anytime you want during the season, light the candle and it will bring remembrance about your loved one. You could even have your own memorial time with family where everyone shares their favorite memories about their loved one.
5.Change your traditions around just a little if you are uncomfortable doing things exactly as you have always done them.
6. Give yourself permission to do less. For example, skip sending the Christmas cards or doing the cookie exchange. Also, don't celebrate exactly the same way you have in the past. Change it up; start a new tradition. (ideas from my friend Connie Shanks)
7.Remember everyone grieves a little differently and heals at a different pace. When life events like a loss happen, unbalance in your wellness will occur. This loss will affect most all areas of your life. If you would like information about how to bring the balance back into your life, please contact me.
Joyce Harrell, RN, OCN is an Oncology Registered Nurse and Wellness Coach. Joyce provides education and workshops on a variety of subjects relating to the health and wellness of cancer patients and their families, as well as the general public. Joyce practices integrative care, which is adding (not replacing) integrative therapies to conventional medicine.