This is my favorite time of year. Nearby mountains cloaked in winter white. Gaggles of geese discussing where to winter. Breaking trail in snowshoes. Family and friends gathering and giving thanks and eating way too much pie and lighting candles and opening gifts and ringing in a New Year.
And yet, the holidays without a job, without our health, with missing loved ones just aren’t the same.
So I asked the experts – friends who have weathered loss – what they did to help them cope through all that holiday cheer.
Almost everyone expressed their gratitude for supportive family and friends through the holidays.
But sometimes our blood relatives aren’t very compassionate or empathetic.
One widow had no desire to be with her family because they were impatient with her grief. Instead, she was rescued by a young couple she didn’t know well (the man had worked for her husband). “They came to my home, made me get dressed, and took me to her mom’s for Christmas dinner. I love their two little boys, so I had to pull myself together for them and I think they knew that.”
If necessary, we can create our own family from the people who get us, who love us, who want us around. Don’t try to do the holidays alone; connect with these kinds of people.
Traditions are important and fun and memorable. But sometimes they need to be temporarily set aside. A widow with a young son wrote, “I ran away for the first two years before I was ready to begin new traditions without my husband.”
And sometimes there’s a need for out-of-the-ordinary practices. A family lost their teenaged son to cancer on his twin sisters’ birthday. “In the morning, we celebrate our son’s life,” his mother wrote, “and in the afternoon we celebrate our girls.”
Michele L. Brennan, Psy.D. reports on the benefits of family rituals in “Why Holiday Traditions Might Be More Important Than You Think”:
Whether it’s stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while the turkey cooks, or family movie night … traditions are a wonderful way to anchor family members to each other.
Lighting the season
One winter day at dusk, I exited a restaurant in a touristy section of town to dozens of trees wrapped with white lights spreading upward into the lower branches.
I held my breath at its simple beauty.
There is science behind the use of light to help lift our spirits. Go ahead, light candles. Put up tiny white lights. Light the fireplace. And see if it doesn’t help chase away gloom.
Her first Christmas as a widow, one friend headed to a department store where she got something for everybody on her list. She said this strategy worked that first year, eliminating the stress of chasing all over town for items on sale. “I needed to simplify and just get it done.”
Did you catch the word simplify?
Consider easy homemade gifts because creating something—layering a soup mix in a Mason jar or knitting one of those cool slouchy hats—can be seriously therapeutic.
Or consider the gift of service via handmade coupons: “Good for one massage,” or “Good for a candlelit dinner for two.”
The Advent Conspiracy website suggests tickets to a ball game or a movie. And of course, the tickets come with you attached:
The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself.
Even when there doesn’t seem much to be grateful for, there’s much to be grateful for. I’m currently composing my second list of 1000 things for which I’m thankful:
#579. Granola-baking session with girlfriends
#580. Fireplace lit against snow falling softly
#581. Fingerless mittens taking shape in knitted softness
#582. Ears in good working order to enjoy all my favorite Christmas tunes
When I fill my holidays with gratitude, there’s less room for sorrow over what’s missing.
The act of reaching out to others in need can help focus our attention off our own losses. (Disclaimer: For those dealing with new and deep grief or loss of health, please don’t pile unrealistic expectations upon yourselves.)
A widowed girlfriend wrote about spending Christmas in a children’s hospital with her infant daughter years earlier. People sang carols in the hallway and the baby girl received a homemade blanket and two stuffed animals. My friend now buys stuffed animals and delivers them to the same hospital. “It’s my favorite Christmas tradition!”
Several friends indicated that faith was a critical component in weathering their losses, not just during the holiday season, but year round.
If there hadn’t been a sense of purpose that eventually settled over Gary and me, if there hadn’t been that deep peace that comes from having a relationship with Jesus Christ, the hard road would have been devastating.
And so, it wasn’t.
Even if we’re not trying to manage a debilitating loss on top of the commercialism and crowds and obligations, the holidays can be stressful. Consider these:
Take a walk. Intentionally notice the beauty in the sights, sounds, and scents.
Make a ‘Deposit Here’ box. Label a decorative box: “Things I will get to, but not this season.” Write down all that weighs heavily upon you. Deposit the slips of paper in the box instead of carrying the weight around.
Keep a journal through the holidays. Record your fears and frustrations, your hopes and joys.
My holiday wish list
A friend whose husband died when her children were young, shared something her daughter said before leaving for college: “When dad died it was really horrible … but I like who I became.”
Which brings us to my Christmas wish list:
May your losses—poor health, financial reversals, a broken relationship, the death of an irreplaceable loved one—shape you into someone you like, someone even more beautiful than you already are.
May we never stop counting what remains after the dust settles.
May unimaginable peace shower down all around you.
This piece is a condensed version of an eBook posted to Renew | Repurpose December 2017.