So often this time of year, clients say to me, “I just want to go to sleep and not wake up until it’s next year”.
Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can empathize with this feeling as the holiday whirlwind approaches. This is especially true if you are in the midst of “The Firsts” — First Thanksgiving, First Christmas, First Hanukkah, First Ramadan, First any Special Occasion without your loved one.
This year, in the wake of my mother’s death, I personally find the idea of hibernation incredibly appealing. I can so easily see myself climbing into bed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and not climbing out until after Valentine’s Day. Because who wants to be awake through the bleakness of January anyway?
Even without the added strain of grief, the holidays can be one of the most chaotic and stressful times of the year. The need, fed by retail businesses and the media, to buy the perfect gift, create the perfect day, and be the perfect person, is impossible to meet during the best of times. Add in the sadness, anxiety, fear, and exhaustion of grief, and these unrealistic expectations take on monstrous proportions, with sometimes disastrous results.
I’ve offered many tips for holiday survival through the years, but when it came time to compile them for this post, I was overwhelmed. What good are “Fifty Ways to Take Care of Yourself During the Holidays” when I can barely manage to dress myself in the morning? (Remind me to tell you about the day a few weeks after my mother died, when I managed to put on a blouse, but failed to actually button it up until I was walking across the parking lot into my office…) So, I began culling and cutting the Fifty Ways and wound up with the following four. Four is a number I can manage. At least most days. I hope you can, too.
#1 — Be Your Own Caregiver. Many of us who are grieving have been caregivers. And caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. Try imagining what you would do for or say to your dead loved one if he were alive and in your place. Chances are you would tell them that the holidays are not about how much you buy, cook, or do, but about the quality of time you spend with those you love.
S L O W D O W N. My mother often said to me (especially during the holidays), “Stop goin’ at it like you’re killin’ snakes!” Which meant, “Slow down! Just stop, sit down, spend time with me.” Slow down physically, emotionally, financially. Set limits and budgets not just for money, but for the more important things like time, energy, and emotion.
Learn to say “No”. Without apologies, without excuses, just, “No”, simply because No is what’s best for you. In grief, there are days when it takes all we have just to get out of bed. When those days come, reward yourself for simply getting up. Have a quiet cup of tea, take a hot bath, go for a leisurely walk, play — really PLAY — with a child or a pet. And if there’s a day when it is simply impossible to get out of bed, then don’t. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make a meal, a party, or a shopping trip. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make ANY meals, parties, or shopping trips. Be gentle with yourself. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with your loved one were he in your place.
#2 — Allow Yourself to Feel What You Feel. Be in the moment, whatever that moment is. I just spent an amazing weekend with my best friend of 37 years. During the 48 hours we were together, we were totally and completely present. We had no agenda, no script, no idea of what we were going to “do” beyond just Being Together and yet somehow we did more, saw more, said more, and felt more than we could possibly have done with even the best constructed plan. It was incredibly healing. A true holiday.
So, if you’re tired, rest. If you can’t face the shopping mall, don’t go. If you want to talk, find someone who will truly listen. If you need time alone, take it. If you’re happy, laugh. If you feel guilty about being happy, acknowledge the guilt, then let it go. If you feel like crying, cry. You won’t “bring everyone down”. In fact, your ability to express your own grief may well give others (especially children) the permission to do the same.
#3 — Re-think Your Holiday Traditions. Take each tradition and ask these question about it:
Where did it come from?
What does it mean?
What is its purpose in our family?
Why do we continue to do it?
What is its True Cost — in money, time, people, energy?
Is this a tradition we really want to keep?
If the True Cost of a must-keep tradition is prohibitive, look at keeping it in a different way, adapt it, or delegate part of its responsibility/costs to others. Teach a younger family member the secret Christmas Cake recipe, then supervise while they do the work. If you don’t want to give up a tradition entirely, then ask for — and allow — others to help you with it. Consider eating out, or buying pre-made dinners or desserts. If the idea of mall shopping while traditional carols blare all around you is more than you can bear, shop online at home while listening to your favorite non-traditional music. Be sure to include your family in these traditions discussions. You may find that a tradition you assumed was priceless really doesn’t mean that much to the family as a whole. What’s more, you may find that together you create brand new traditions.
The first Thanksgiving after my sister died, when my mother and I learned we were going to be alone for the holiday, I asked her if she would be alright with only a turkey breast since it was just the two of us.
“You know, I hate turkey,” she answered.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I knew that…”
“Well, I do.” She made an awful face.
“Um, well, Ok…” I said. “We could do a small ham, maybe?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want any of that kinda stuff.”
“You don’t want any dressing?” I asked. “You don’t want my sweet potatoes?”
“Well, ok, Momma. What do you want then?”
“Enchilladas,” she said, not missing a beat. “I want those enchilladas you make with all that cheese.”
I was incredulous. The woman made herself sick on my sweet potatoes every Thanksgiving and Christmas. But she insisted, and so a new tradition was born. We had an Enchillada Thanksgiving Dinner each year for the rest of her life, whether we were alone or not. This year, my first without her, I’m making them in her honour for my co-workers.
The best traditions mirror the families from which they come, families that evolve and change from year to year. Death is one of the greatest changes your family will experience. Don’t be afraid to allow your holiday traditions to reflect that change.
#4 — Include the Elephant. Oftentimes, the death of a loved one sits in the room like the proverbial elephant that everyone sees but no one wants to acknowledge. This is especially true during the holidays.
One of the many blessings of my friend’s weekend visit was that I never felt as though I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about my mother’s death. I never felt I had to, nor that I was expected to, either. I only knew that her death would be a welcome subject should I need it to be. And sometimes I did. Actually, that’s not quite true. It was more that my mother’s memory arose of its own accord throughout our conversations. A time or two, it was about her death, her actual death or funeral, but mostly it was about her life. It was as though my mother knew she was welcome in our weekend and so she made herself known in funny stories, in music, in shared remembrances that flowed seamlessly in and out of those hours we spent together.
So, don’t worry that you “might make everyone feel bad” — most likely, they already do, just as you do, and recognition of your shared pain can be a great relief. Set a place for your loved one at the holiday table, drink a toast to them, include their favourite food. Encourage everyone to tell their best holiday story about the dead, play the music they loved most, write them a letter or a poem and share it. Take the money you would have spent on their holiday gifts and make a memorial donation to their special charity. Volunteer time to help others in their name. The important thing is to acknowledge their absence. In so doing, you acknowledge your on-going love for them — and theirs for you — and that is how you carry them forward with you into this and every future holiday season.