I was reading one of those annual letters many families send out during the Christmas season. This particular one provided an excellent example of coping with grief at this special time of year. The writer’s family would be having Christmas for the first time without a woman who was a mother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother for various members of the family. The writer noted how much the deceased loved Christmas, so the family would proudly celebrate her memory over the holidays.
The word that caught my eye was “celebrate.” Most people do not associate this word with loss of a loved one, especially at this time of year. In fact, they might expect to see the word “mourn” instead: “We will mourn her memory over the holidays.”
Mourning is indeed an important part of the grieving process, but in the long run, we will cope much better with personal loss if we resolve to honor departed loved ones by celebrating their memory, focusing on how much they contributed to our life, and considering ways to honor their memory.
With that message in mind, here’s a piece that Dr. Carlea Dries wrote for the blog on December 12, 2016, words that I like to repeat every year at this time.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year… except when it’s not. The holidays usually mean the coming together of family members. Ordinarily this is a welcome time of festive gatherings, exchanging of presents, and special memories made near a roaring fireplace. For some, however, this Norman Rockwell image is drastically different from reality, particularly when recent loss of a loved one is involved. Let’s note that “loss” is not limited to the death; it can also include divorce, hospitalization, incarceration, active duty without a holiday leave, or a family member who moved away.
Recently, I attended the funeral for my great aunt. Though Marge was 93 and in failing health, her death hit our family rather hard, especially her daughters and sister (my grandmother, who is now the only one left of the original 11 siblings). The sermon during the church service (paraphrased herein) highlighted how this first holiday is going to be different: “You’ll notice the quiet. You’ll notice the missing [specialty food]. You’ll notice the missing chair at the table.”
While I was at the repast, a good friend of mine texted to say that her parents are getting divorced after more than thirty years of marriage. This news was unexpected and rendered her numb. She just kept asking how it could be real and why, if it had to happen, it had to come so close to Hanukkah. This was supposed to be the first time she would be hosting her family, and now everything was changing.
How do you cope with the first holiday season in the “next normal” or “new normal”? How do you hold on to a sense of control when things are clearly out of your control?
The most important thing to do, discussed in other blog posts, is to recognize what is in your circle of power. My grandmother can’t bring her sister back. My friend can’t convince her parents to stay together. So, they must try to do what they can: accept what it is and move forward from that point. Yes, that’s easier typed than done.
Some feel consoled by leaving a place at the table for the absent person, but many others find that much more discomforting because it is a visual reminder of the vacancy. You may, therefore, choose to remember the person in a smaller way. I have made ornaments with pictures of departed relatives, reminding me of times we spent together. Every year for Thanksgiving, my mother makes her aunt’s stuffing (though Aunt Petronella called it “dressing”). My mother-in-law uses a picture of her mother as the angel for her crèche. A friend video-chats with her husband who is stationed overseas. For the past 14 years, my father brings homemade goodies to the staff at the nursing home where his parents finished their earthly stories. A colleague mentioned that she has a “moment of reflection” during which everyone present shares a memory, story, or image of those who cannot be with them – one even sings a favorite song!
These simple gestures become meaningful traditions that do not overwhelm us with intense feelings of loss. Rather, they celebrate the lives and connections we had to those who are absent.
Other coping suggestions include planning a totally new activity that literally takes you away from the familiar reminders of the absent one. Go on a mini-vacation. Celebrate with a different group of people. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter. Service to others is probably the most effective way of coping with personal loss. Keep your mind and body distracted, not to the point where you are ignoring, denying, or detaching from the loss, but to keep you focused on something productive instead of painful.
No matter what options you are comfortable choosing, you must give yourself permission to feel. There will be moments when you want to do nothing but sit in silence. Other times you will want to do nothing but scream. You might even find yourself smiling or laughing and then feel guilty because how dare you be happy when you are missing someone?! Have “the big, snotty cry” if that is what you want to do. Let yourself feel. Take the time you need. It’s okay to say “no” to invitations; just be sure you don’t let your mourning stop you from living.
There was also a message of comfort in the sermon for my Aunt (again paraphrased): Marge lives on in your hearts and memories. If you listen in the quiet, you can hear her. If you feel in the still, you can sense her. Remembering means no one ever leaves.
You might not feel better today. You might not feel better tomorrow. But at some point, you will feel that you have moved to the next normal and that will be the next best thing.