For those of us who have lost a loved one in recent months or years, and for those of us who are facing--or have a loved one who is facing--a difficult diagnosis, this holiday season may feel overwhelming. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the holidays are powerful, evoking memories of our loved ones and reminding us of our loss. The emotions we have been dealing with on a daily basis will most likely be magnified as the holidays approach. So how exactly do we get through the most wonderful time of the year when our hearts are breaking and our world feels like it's been turned upside down?
I'm writing this post because I have lived this. And four years later, after the loss of my mom, I still feel my loss more acutely during the holidays. Mom was diagnosed with inoperable, incurable cancer just a few days before Thanksgiving, and I am convinced that my subconscious remembers this time of year. I am thinking about her more. I see the leaves turning color and falling from the trees, I feel the cold and I see the sky darken before dinnertime, and in the deepest recesses of my soul, I remember. I remember the fear and the pain and the realization that my life would never be the same again.
I'm not feeling the profound sadness and grief I felt four or three years ago, but the holidays are still tinged with sadness. And they are always evolving. As our kids and our siblings' kids grow, we see new faces around our table. This year, some extended family members are joining us for the first time. It will never be the way it was, but I am thankful and eager to embrace what is. I continue to do my best to let go of what I've lost and hold on to what I have, and to give thanks in all of it.
Here are a few tips I hope you'll find helpful as you navigate the next couple of months.
Be intentional. Spend some time thinking about what you would like Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day to look like. You may be tempted to say, "I don't know what I'm going to want on those days or how I'm going to feel. I'll just wing it and hope it all turns out OK." Trust me, this is not a good plan. We can easily find ourselves being ambushed by our emotions if we are not intentional about these days and do not come up with at least a tentative plan. Consider these questions and then have an honest conversation with your loved ones.
Be authentic. Be honest. It's OK to say, "I'm just not feeling up to attending the Christmas party this year. I appreciate your understanding." OR "I'm not up for hosting this year. Can someone else host?" OR "I would like to put up the tree, but I need some help. Would you be willing to come over and help me decorate the house?" And when you do make plans, give yourself an out. "I am planning to come to your cookie exchange, but please understand that some days are better for me than others. I may need to cancel at the last minute. I appreciate your understanding." As much as possible, be honest and don't worry about letting others down or offending someone. Most people will be understanding of your grief, and even if they aren't, you don't need anyone's permission or approval to do what is best for you during this season of loss.
Be present. You will be swept away by memories from the past, and you will at times be overwhelmed with anxious thoughts about the future. But as much as you possibly can, try to focus on and be present in the moment. When you are with friends and loved ones, engage with them as best as you are able. If you feel sad and need to cry, that's OK. Don't apologize for your tears. And if you find yourself laughing or feeling small bursts of joy, don't feel guilty. Feel your feelings, and lean into your pain. And express your gratitude to those who are walking with you on your journey.
Be realistic. Be careful not to place unrealistic expectations on yourself or on others. Don't expect that you will be able to "push through", "be normal", and "pull off the holidays" like you always do. And don't expect that others will be able to know how you feel, understand where you are coming from, or make the holidays easier for you. The reality is that this holiday is different. But with some thought and preparation, these days can be bearable. They won't be the best holidays you've ever had, but they won't automatically be the worst days either. Hopefully they will be a mix of sorrow and also joy, of grief and also comfort, as you surround yourself with loved ones during this difficult season.
Be expectant. Expect that these days will be challenging. But also expect God to be with you, to comfort you in your sadness, and help you through the hard moments. He promises to never leave us or forsake us. Embrace the true hope and promise of Christmas: "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us"). Matthew 1:23
Finally, consider attending a Holiday GriefShare event near you. These are one-night events designed to help you navigate the holidays after a loss. Some churches also host similar events.
In the Chicago Area:
Willow Creek Church - Handling the Holidays After a Loss - November 15th https://www.willowcreek.org/en/care/relational-resources/rebuild-grief-support/south-barrington
Holiday GriefShare: https://www.griefshare.org
Please comment below your suggestions or questions about navigating the holidays after a loss. We'd love to hear from you!