So, what do we do? What practical steps can we take to bring joy back into our holidays? Do I ignore the pain and fake my way through it or do I embrace my pain and cry through it? Should we keep things exactly the same or change things up? Should we set an empty seat to honor our loved ones or avoid the subject altogether?
Of course, everyone is different and every loss is different. We process our losses based upon what we think we know and what we think will work. For me, personally, after several years of trying things, reading books and distracting myself, I chose to take some action. I firmly believe that taking action to relieve the pain associated with loss is the first major step to finding joy in the holidays.
But how do I address the pain? How do I find relief? I am glad you asked! Start by purchasing The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman. I suggest that you read the first 6 chapters and see if it doesn't speak to you. To continue your quest for relief from the pain, you have some options. The first option is to find a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist through the website for the Grief Recovery Institute. From there, you can decide if you like having a group setting or a one-on-one program. Another option is to continue the work in the book with a good close friend. At the end of the program you say goodbye to the pain, isolation, and loneliness brought on by significant loss. In this your heart will be lighter and able to remember clearly the good memories.
Next, I would be especially kind to yourself. In this I mean that you have to recharge, regroup, and re-equip yourself so you can be mentally present for others. There's a fantastic book by a dear friend of mine, Laura Jack, called The Compassion Code. In this book you will learn first and foremost, to have compassion for yourself. There's an old quote from Abe Lincoln that says, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." (1) In a way, our compassion and care for ourselves is sharpening our own axe before we start engaging others. Sharpen your axe by attending to grief recovery and having compassion for yourself. Then you will be ready and more effective in dealing with the holidays.
What does compassion for yourself look like? First, when you have emotions, especially the "negative, socially unacceptable" ones, give yourself permission to have them. I put "negative, socially unacceptable" in quotes for a reason. Society does not want anyone to be unhappy in public. We have songs that tell us to "put on our happy face" so we can be functional in society. I would like to say that this is clearly a falsehood. When we fake how we really feel, we rob others of being supportive to us. Second, we need to give ourselves permission to accept compassion from others. Most of us know the waves of emotion that crash over us from time to time in the most inopportune times and places. These may be brought on by anything. Familiar smells, a product on the grocery store shelf (for me it is Nilla Wafers, which my son loved), or passing a familiar or painful place can bring on the flood. Give yourself permission to feel the emotions fully, to be sad, and to involve yourself in the moment. In those moments, allow others to minister to you broken heart.
"So far, Lance, you haven't really given us any real strategies for dealing with the holidays." I know, I know... to be ready, we need to first be introspective. Now for some practical suggestions. Before you read on, allow yourself to accept or reject any or all of these if they are not right for you, your family, or your family traditions. Perhaps however, they can give you some ideas that do work in your own family. Also, when I say lost loved one, I mean a person or a pet. The loss can be by death, or estrangement.
- Honor your lost loved one. Sometimes you have to allow the "elephant in the room" to be recognized. In holiday gatherings, there's always some tension about whether to bring up the loss or not. Putting it out in the open can relieve this stress and allow conversation to flow. In addition, you may want to specifically ask people for stories that are funny or honor the person. Hearing nice stories of your loss can be helpful and you may learn something new. Set a boundary that only positive conversation need occur. Use this time to discuss recovery from loss also and your own grief journey.
- Turn everything on its head. Try tossing all of the normal traditions and do something altogether different. Caution, don't do this as an avoidance, but do it to shake up your holidays in a way that is positive and brings something new. My wife and I struggle with not only the loss of our son, but also with the change brought on by the ever expanding lives of our other two children. They are working their own lives now and we are "empty nesters" kind of still grappling with change. This is quite normal and quite natural. Both of our children are married and have additional responsibilities to their spouses families. This is a tough transition for them also. This year for Thanksgiving, we decided to combine Christmas and Thanksgiving into one holiday and try something new. We rented a house that is midway between everyone and plan a crazy fun time with all of us doing things our kids and their spouses love to do (hiking, going to a concert, etc.). Our kids are then "released" for Christmas to spend with their spouses family. There's probably another blog coming on that experience later. We on other hand have a nice Christmas experience of our own planned. Switching things up can be good or bad. If things are not that great, try something new next year.
- Keep things exactly the same. Yes, I said "exactly the same." Sometimes the tradition of the holidays can be a comforting factor, a providing a normalcy in an abnormal feeling time. To be clear, I want all my readers to understand that you are not broken or abnormal, but your situation may feel incomplete or foreign without your lost loved one. Following your normal traditions AND giving yourself permission to feel your feelings AND accepting comfort from others AND letting it all be okay is what you are after. When a feeling overwhelms, let it overwhelm, let it be okay with you and your guest, accept love and tenderness, and enjoy.
- Okay, one more, but it is a "Don't strategy." Do not ignore the loss or the absence. Don't be strong so others won't feel uncomfortable. Acknowledgement of the loss and change, along with the feelings associated with it are part of the new normal (even thought it feels so strange and unfamiliar). Be you, in all of your messy, emotional, broken-hearted way.
I would be most honored if those that read this would post other strategies or ideas that they have used for dealing with the holidays below.