Enjoying the Holidays Despite a Tragic Loss



Photo courtesy of: C Saville Photography

The Set-Up

The holidays have always been a vulnerable time for many. With cheerful cards piling up in the mailbox and visions of Norman Rockwell masquerading as the norm, few truly believe that their holiday experiences are adequate, let alone celebratory. Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that those photos are one great shot culled from a whole year’s worth, and that Rockwell and his second wife (yes, he was divorced) suffered and were extensively treated for major depression.

If holiday celebrations have always been a “set-up”, then this time of year is certainly more so. There may be an empty seat at the table. The absence of the person that put the lights on the menorah, made the gravy or wrapped most artistically is felt keenly. All that gather are both grieving in their own way and are anxious about that grief. Furthermore, people grieve differently, and their anxiety increases the likelihood of careless, if not outright upsetting, behavior. While family members and friends try to appreciate each others’ quirks at times like these, certain behaviors often seem irritating, threatening or inappropriate.

During a season when time tends to compress while to-do lists grow, grief can profoundly complicate reality. It is generally accepted that the process of normal grieving lasts at least 13 months. That’s how long it takes to pass through important holidays, anniversaries and other special dates on the calendar. It’s no wonder that people get stuck somewhere between, “Somehow this is going to be fine,” and “Let’s just skip the whole thing.”

No one strategy works for everyone, but there are some that will help.

The Strategies

The good news is that there are strategies to find a safe place to celebrate the holidays in-between these two extremes. The first step to creating a sense of peace during the turbulence is to simplify the season. Those in mourning don’t feel or act like themselves, have less energy and aren’t into the expectations and demands of the season. Formerly cooperative family and friends may be less so this year as they muddle through their own grief. Others might feel overwhelmed by friends and family members that want to help with every aspect of the holidays.

It is important to allow extra time for rest and reflection; we need to resist crowding our grief with busyness. The body and soul need time to grieve. The holiday should be part of that process, rather than getting in the way of it. As we approaches this first—or yet another—holiday season without our loved one, we might poll others experiencing this loss for ideas of how to proceed. Or, if it seems overwhelming to coordinate gatherings, we can make some decisions ourself. There are some family traditions that we will want to prioritize. This may also be the year that the 25-pound turkey with all the trimmings set upon a large table might be converted to a buffet, with guests mingling throughout the house. Or, wouldn’t it be a wonderfully fun tribute to Mom’s beloved baking to have all the children roll dough together, uniquely filling their own creations in the first “family bake-off”. If it is just too sad for everyone to gather at Aunt Marge’s place without Uncle Jack, then choose another venue, or perhaps another holiday ritual, to celebrate in that home.

Photo courtesy of: C Saville PhotographyAs much simplifying and reconfiguring as we do for this holiday, don’t forget the most important part: the people. We must manage our own expectations, knowing that this holiday will be different and draining in ways that may surprise us. And don’t be afraid to include “the elephant” in the celebrations. Laugh about the awful turkey gravy. Admit that it was hard to get the wax off the tablecloth every January. Fuss about how annoying it is to get the lights on a tree alone, or about the arduous decision of who should sit where at dinner. If we cry, so what?

There remains an overwhelming desire to have everything go according to plan as dear ones gather over the holidays. There is also a natural tendency to attribute any messy feelings to the loved one that will not be in their usual place, fulfilling their accustomed role. Why not mitigate the challenges of the season by writing a new script and remembering that uncomfortable feelings were likely part of last year’s holidays, too? With our new strategies in place, we don’t have to “just survive” the holidays. In fact, new ways of celebrating may become a wonderful part of our healing process and legacy of our loved one. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate gift?


Susan E. Sheehan, CT, LCSW, ACHP-SW, principal at finishing well consulting, LLC, holds graduate degrees in public administration, systems theory and medical social work. She focuses on offering creative insights to facilitate high-quality medical, palliative and hospice social work and provides in-home medical social work. Sheehan anticipates the publication of Dying Words: Talking Points for Mortals. Read excerpts at FinishingWellConsulting.com.

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