Although it may seem unfair to those of us who have lost a life partner, child, parent, or close friend, the holiday season has returned. And with it’s return all of the expectations and disappointments that normally riddle this season with contradictory emotions are exacerbated 1,000 fold for those of us who suffer a significant loss.
Not only are we expected to gather with family and friends and “be of good cheer,” we are expected to be thankful, generous, and to feel like celebrating. This can be a tall order, indeed, if we are still deeply saddened, possibly depressed; if we are still working through feelings of anger at the world and a sense of injustice; in the death of our loved one caused rifts in family relationships or in our financial well being; if other family members are also grieving; or if we are already feeling isolated and misunderstood by others.
But even for those of us who have perhaps resolved some of these feelings and issues, the holiday season may be fraught with emotional pain. This is because our best and worst memories are often generated in the crucible of holiday celebration. As the holidays come upon us we are both unconsciously and consciously reminded of our lost loved one. The intense yearning for this person can be overwhelming at these times. Without warning, memories of how the person did certain things, what they said, their likes and dislikes, and their unique and individual contribution to the celebration come pouring back, leaving in their wake the felt void of the person’s presence.
While all of the above is very likely to be part of the experience of a bereaved person during the holiday season, it does not have to comprise the entire experience. The upcoming holidays: Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanza share the common theme of celebrating the winter months by finding/creating light in the darkness. For the bereaved finding the light in the darkness can serve as a powerful metaphor for the healing process. What the light will represent will depend on the individual: for some it may be a heightened sense of peace and acceptance; for others it may be finding a balance between sadness and hope for the future; for some it may mean finding some enjoyment in one or two aspects of the season and accepting that experience as being enough; for some it may mean simply surviving the holiday season largely intact, and heaving a sigh of welcome relief with it’s passing. All of these types of light are fine. Just as there is no one to experience loss there is no one way to find one’s way through the holidays.
A large part of finding the light consists in making friends with and even managing the darkness. What does this mean? First it means, realizing in advance that the holidays WILL be different, that there will be feelings of sadness and loss, as well as memories which may be happy, but poignant. Even if those around you are not able to drop their expectations that you will be appropriately “cheerful,” you can change your expectations for yourself. Realistic self expectations will go a long way in freeing you from an unnecessary sense of having failed to please those around you. This means not only the expectations of the living, but also those which are so often projected on to the dead. Even if your lost loved one would have ‘wanted you to be happy’ you do not have to be happy. Perhaps happiness will return in a year or two — all you have to do now is acknowledge and accept the feelings that you are having.
In the same vein, you can help family and friends to alter their expectations of you by releasing them from the responsibility of SEEING to it that the bereaved person has a good time. This well intentioned, but inappropriate adopting of responsibility for the bereaved person’s emotional status can lead to an experience of failure if the bereaved person shows signs of sadness. This sense of failure in turn leads to the expression of impatience and anger toward the bereaved person. By letting others know what to expect and making it clear that they are not responsible for making your holidays happy you may experience greater harmony and acceptance.
Knowing how much time you feel you want to spend with others and how much time you want to have to yourself can be invaluable in making plans for the holidays. Make plans which will give you the balance between private time and social that feels right. If possible, choose to be with those who are best able to support you at this time in your life.
Remembering to use your bereavement support system if you have established one can be very helpful. Often support groups and therapy are suspended over the holiday season, the very time when they are most needed. Make plans to stay in touch with one or two support group members over the season, and know how to contact your therapist in case you are feeling overwhelmed.
Making a space to actively remember the lost loved one is also important. You might want to acknowledge your memories privately in a journal, or a letter to the dead person. A grave side visit or a visit to your church or synagogue may be helpful. For families and friends it can be very useful to include a memorial activity in the holiday plans. This could be as simple as talking about the dead person or could involve honoring the person in your traditional holiday ceremonies.
Finding a balance between your need for support and other’s needs for your involvement in the activities of the present will also be helpful as you navigate the holiday social calendar. It is important to remember that the holidays are difficult for many. You may find that being attentive to the thoughts and ideas of others will provide you with some relief from your own sadness, and help you to feel more connected to the present and less drawn to the past.
Finally, it is often giving that helps to ease the pain of loss. There are many positive ways of giving which can also allow you to continue your healing process. And don’t forget that it is also OK to give to yourself. Treat yourself to something special — it doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive, it just needs to feel right.
As the time between the loss and the present grows, the holidays generally become easier to manage. But it is likely that you will find that creating light in the dark season will be a continued source of comfort and even as they say, joy, linking you not only to your lost loved one, but to the very heart of the holiday season.
by Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.