When you've lost a loved one, the holidays can be brutal. There's no easy way around it. The holiday season looks and feels very different from what you're used to, and it can be difficult to find your way back to seeing it as a time of celebration.
"Accept that it’s going to be a challenging holiday and respect that," says Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, licensed family therapist and author of "Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents." "Expect that your feelings will be all over the place," he added, noting that your emotions may range from numb to sad, hopeless to angry, or even feeling like everything will be okay. "Expect to continue to feel this full range of emotions, and don’t be surprised if you’re trying to feel in a celebratory mood, but you feel these other emotions."
Old traditions may never feel the same, but if you're ready, this might be a good time to start a new tradition, one that can help you cope with your grief while honoring and remembering those who are no longer with you. Here are some ideas:
- Volunteer with or donate to her favorite charity.
- Make a list. Allen Klein, author of "Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying," lost his wife when she was just 34 years old. To cope with the loss and to honor her memory, he keeps a running list during the holiday season of all of the things he has to be grateful for. "Making a list of all those things gave me a sense of gratitude and helped me get through the difficult moments," Klein told MNN.
- Adopt a family in need of holiday gifts and donate to them in your loved one's name.
- Include a loved one's favorite dish in your holiday meal. My mom's husband used to love to make and eat veggies, pickles, and olives as an appetizer before big meals so my mom has carried on this tradition by making "Lolo's relish tray" a part of her holiday gatherings.
- Buy a gift for your loved one and donate it to a local charity.
- Spend time outdoors. "Take a walk, be near the shore, go outside and look at the stars'" says Dolan-Del Vecchio. If your loved one was a nature lover, this may help you feel more connected.
- Share one of your loved one's favorite recipes with someone. Was he a big pancake fan? Did she love to make chocolate-chip cookies? Make these dishes throughout the season and share them with others far and wide.
- Play her favorite holiday song, or just her favorite everyday song, at the family gathering.
- Create a memory tablecloth, stocking, or box where everyone can write down their favorite memories of your lost loved one.
- Reflect on your loved one during the family blessing. Say a prayer, read a letter to your loved one, or meditate on a favorite memory. Dolan-Del Vecchio notes that the key here is to create a ritual that matches your spirituality. "A ritual of that sort goes beyond the words spoken or the gestures made. A ritual can capture that which goes deeper than words."
- Visit one of his favorite spots. Did he love the local park with the view of the mountains? Or maybe he was a regular at the downtown diner. Make it a point to visit this spot on your own or as a group with friends and family.
- Set a place at the table in memory of your loved one.
- Add an ornament to your tree or a new holiday decoration to your home that reminds you of your loved one. My husband's dear aunt passed away a few years ago. The following Christmas, her husband gave everyone in the family ornaments for our trees to remind us of sweet Aunt Betsy. I look forward to hanging that one every year. For large gatherings, you might even consider setting up a small tree with paper ornaments where others can share memories of other loved ones who are no longer with them.
- Do an activity or watch a TV show that reminds you of a loved one. RaShea Drake of Salt Lake City, Utah lost her dad, Paul Melvin Jenkins, on Christmas Day in 2015. Jenkins loved to fish and watch football so Drake and her family share fishing stories and put a game on the television as a way of remembering him.
- Share your loved one's stories. Drake also likes to share her dad's stories with family and friends, especially during the holidays. "To him, having a legacy was important (which is probably why he had six kids!)," says Drake, "and so to help honor that legacy, I like to share his stories."
- Don't do anything. It's also okay NOT to do any major celebrating this year if that's what feels right. Part of acknowledging your feelings means accepting the fact that you may not be up for creating any new traditions this year, even if others think that you should. If it's too heartbreaking to attend the holiday party that reminds you of your loved one, don't go this year. If you're feeling overwhelmed about sending out Christmas cards, don't send them. If you're just not up for decking the halls, they can go undecked this year. "Please remember that this is your life'" says Megan Devine, author of "It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand." "You do not have to do anything that feels bad or wrong or horrifying. Even if you agreed to participate in something, you can change your mind at any time. Stop whatever you’re doing whenever you want. Even if you just got there. Even if it was your idea."
As you consider some of the ideas on this list, remember that everyone deals with grief in their own way. You might want to honor your loved one with a new tradition while someone else wants to keep everything as it used to be. Just remember that there is no one right way to honor a loved one during the holidays. Search for a compromise that allows everyone to cope in their own ways. If you can't find a middle ground, it's OK for you each to do what works for you.
The most important thing, says Devine, is to care for yourself. "Reach out where it feels good to reach, curl in when that is what you need. Make this season as much of a comfort to you as you can. It's OK to not be OK."