While the holidays are often referred to as the happiest time of the year, for many people who have experienced a loss, it can be a challenging season. For most of my life, I looked forward to the holidays. I celebrated my birthday in November and then eased into the Christmas spirit by purchasing a wreath for my front door and bringing a Christmas tree inside my home. The feeling of unboxing and carefully unwrapping each holiday ornament to decorate with brought me so much joy. The way the world slowed down this time of year also gave me comfort. And being able to spend time with those I loved felt like a blessing. But it wasn’t until I experienced a loss that the holiday season took on a new meaning for me.
Whenever I encountered a friend who was ambivalent about the holidays after the loss of a loved one, I tried to include them in whatever plans I had so they would feel welcome somewhere. My grandmother was always happy to have more people join our little festivities. Yet, most times, the invitation would be declined in favor of a cozy night in with their thoughts. Candidly, the reaction made my heart hurt, but now that I’m in a similar place in life, it makes total sense.
This year, Thanksgiving was the first holiday I had to navigate, although I began to feel the grips of grief much earlier this fall. While I was grateful for friends who extended an invite and wanted me to pull up a seat with their families, I declined all of their kind invitations. The mere thought of celebrating with someone else’s family felt like a knife to my heart while simultaneously feeling like I was cheating on my usual traditions. It wouldn’t just be a seat at the table for me that was needed, but also a chair for my grief, which feels like an extra appendage to be accounted for these days.
Many of the emotions I’ve felt these last few months have surprised me. The thing about grief is that it can sneak up on you when you least expect it. From warming up a cup of coffee to driving out of state for a funeral, the depth of grief and what triggers it for me knows no bounds. To those who have experienced grief, I’m sure you can relate in some way.
In honor of National Grief Awareness Week, and as we prepare to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas and ring in a new year, it’s a time when those grieving may feel the need to retreat to find comfort (I know I do). But it’s also a time to lean on others for support. While I am by no means an expert on grieving or loss, here are a few things I will be doing during the holiday season to support my mental and emotional health:
- Honor boundaries: While I appreciate all of the holiday invites I’ve been receiving, I’m determined to ride this one out alone, and I feel more comfortable doing my own thing (although that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the kind gestures). One way I’m honoring my emotional headspace is by accepting that this is the reality for this year and knowing that it won’t always feel this hard. I’ve been fortunate to have friends who understand my position and are finding other ways to support me. On Thanksgiving, my client prepared and packaged a whole Thanksgiving meal for me to enjoy. It was the perfect way to support me and help me celebrate Thanksgiving.
- Feel emotions: Part of working through the grieving process is accepting your emotions when they come. I’ve gone from feeling perfectly fine to crying hysterically minutes later. And the smallest thing can trigger that reaction. Permitting myself to be with my feelings has been a huge help, and I allow it to cross over into my work life, too. When my emotions are running high, the best thing I can do is take a break. That may mean taking a walk in nature or talking to a friend, but I don’t do my best work on these days, so it means taking a “sanity day” work-wise.
- Do something meaningful: My grandmother and I used to attend mass during the holiday season. Neither of us was particularly religious at any other time of the year, but this was when we went to church. It’s a tradition I plan on honoring this year and for many years to come.
If the thought of the holidays feels overwhelming (for any reason), I hope something in this post resonated with you. At the very least, please know that you are not alone. Seek support from family, friends, or a grief counselor and take care of yourself both physically and emotionally this holiday season. By doing so, you can honor your loved one and create new memories that will help you heal.