Tips for Navigating the Holidays While Grieving

Tips for Navigating the Holidays While Grieving

That time of year is peeking around the corner. Holidays. Although originally created as times of festivity to honor significant dates, people, and times of the year, the holidays can be a source of added stress and anxiety if you are grieving the death of a loved one.

Because holidays are often shared with our closest family and friends participating in special traditions, it is exactly this situation that adds additional layers of mixed emotions and stress to the experience. That special person whom we shared those moments with will not be there.

I used to be that person that could not imagine how or why the holidays would be a stressful time for others. Until I found myself grieving the future holidays I would never experience.

It was Christmas Eve and I was in our closet quietly wrapping gifts to be shared in the morning. My tears blessed each one with tenderness. Something in me knew this would be the last Christmas we spent with him. I cannot remember what any of the packages were, but they all held this precious knowledge. A deep and dull pain overwhelmed my heart with the thought of carrying on this tradition without him. My throat clenched tight knowing my children would grow up without their father not only during the holidays but every future moment of their lives.

I tried so hard to focus on the moment and be present right here, right now. I savored every breath, sound, touch, and kiss from this man. We all did. As he unwrapped my gift to him, I watched closely for his reaction. We gathered around him as he quietly took such thoughtful and sweet time looking at every page. It was a picture book of all the adventures we had taken during the last year and he was soaking up every single one. Tears slowly rolled down his cheeks as he looked at me and said “This is the most meaningful gift you’ve ever given me…. thank you."

It was not the book he was thanking me for, it was the memories, the time we spent together as a family, especially the last 15 months of his amazing life. It was the substance and meaning of his life.

We took our last family picture on Christmas morning.

I have never looked at or experienced holidays the same. From Memorial Day, Valentines to New Year’s Eve, birthdays, and everyone in between, I am now that person who struggles during any holiday. For many reasons: missing the memories, the loss of traditions, the making of new ones, grieving the future ones without him, and many more. I now see a whole world filled with tender hearts during the holidays. I understand with so much more empathy and compassion.

With each passing year and every imaginable emotion, my heart cracked open, I have learned to navigate these moments with a bit more grace and wisdom. I have learned to create new traditions, honor and be grateful for the memories, and approach each holiday with vigilant tenderness and appreciation for how my holiday coping skills have awesomely developed!

1. Expectations: NONE The biggest lesson learned was to not place any extra expectations during the holidays. It is already a day or season widely promoted by our culture or the public so why carry an additional load of keeping up with expectations. My favorite quote for this is “please excuse me for not meeting the expectations you’ve placed on me”. Later I realized that it also included the expectations I put on myself! So, more than likely your understanding of life, love, and death has changed, why not give yourself permission to be real with where you presently stand in life. Grieving is an honoring of love and a precious act of humanity. Be present with it. Let it flow through you. This is not the time to add stressful situations on top of what you are already experiencing.

2. Communication: This can be tricky depending on your current relationships. However, if you can share with family and friends a full disclosure stating how you are feeling, that puts all the cards on the table. One moment you may feel like being with others, another you may need to be alone. Give yourself space to grieve through the holidays at your own pace. When those that love us are aware of where we are, it opens the door for honest conversations that can support us now. The death of a loved one often gives us the tender firsthand knowledge that time is our greatest gift. If you have the energy, share this wisdom with those around you. The gift of presence can be so meaningful to not only others but to our hearts as well. With that in mind, sharing time with people who tenderly support you in your grief can remind us that we do not have to be alone all the time.

3. Honoring Precious Moments: Your traditions and routines have now changed. Honor That! Your life has changed and that deserves recognition in deeply meaningful ways. Hold onto the traditions that work for you and maybe you will also find new traditions that become part of your holidays. This is the space between honoring the past, celebrating the present, and dreaming for the future. Letting go of the past can be a ceremony which can then offer space to reimagine new traditions. Check out the ideas of different ways to bring the meaning of our loved ones to the present in various ways.

4. Self-Care: Be patient and oh so very tender with yourself. Grief permeates our body, mind, and soul. It is so important to really embrace self-care. Holidays or not, this is the time to rest, choose what activities or events “fill you up” and allow yourself to NOT attend the activities that do not fill you up! Breath, rest, fresh air, movement, sunshine…. repeat. Give yourself extraordinary amounts of tenderness and love. The holidays are stressful enough. 

Make the self-care part of your daily routine a non-refundable appointment! Grieving affects our heart, mind, body, and spirit so replenish it with nourishment, whatever that looks like for you. It is also okay and very healthy to allow joy. Is it a walk through the quiet forest, baking, traveling, attending a church service, gathering with friends, watching a movie, volunteering, doing crafts, playing music, or going to a concert? Explore different ways to replenish and nourish your WHOLE self. Searching for gratitude, joy, and laughter is very healing to our hearts!

5. My favorite: Give yourself an exit plan. This goes along with number one, no expectations. Prepare yourself by acknowledging that you may want to leave an event unexpectedly. AND THAT IS OK. Grief is unpredictable. Say you go to an activity and realize halfway through that it is just too overwhelming or does not even have any meaning to you anymore, take care of yourself and exit. This may happen quite often. When we are grieving, we are missing something or someone we have lost, and the flood of emotions can happen unexpectedly. There may be times we can let it flow and other times we need to have space. Take away the added pressure and again, give yourself permission to live in the moment with your needs and emotions.

6. Holiday Helper: Keep in touch with someone that loves you wholeheartedly. Share with them how you are feeling and ask them to check in with you. Whether it be a counselor, close friend, support group, or an online community, make a commitment to be there for each other during exceptionally emotional times like the holidays. This way you can hold each other accountable for any pitfalls or rabbit holes you may get stuck in. If you have found yourself on the 5th day of Hallmark Movies wearing the same set of pajamas, let them come over and coax you into greeting the sunshine or taking a shower. Rabbit holes are real, we just do not want to get stuck in them for too long.

7. Anticipatory Grief: At a certain point, I started to feel anxious before a holiday would even arrive. At first, I did not understand why I was experiencing all the emotions and then I would look at the calendar and realize that a holiday or special day was soon approaching. This is when I was able to really acknowledge my needs, emotions, and grief. Our body stores emotional memories and responds with a physical response, even when we are unaware of the trigger. Check-in with yourself, the date, memories, and surroundings to bring awareness to the emotional experience. And then, give yourself tenderness and self-care to navigate the next steps of living and grieving. You may be crying one minute and joyfully laughing the next. It is all the natural process of living, loving, birthing, and dying.

Grieving is the consequence of experiencing love.

We grieve the ones we love who are no longer with us. It is an act of love and the most natural and normal response to the human experience. The uniqueness of each person's grieving journey makes no two responses the same and therefore means there is no right or wrong way to grieve or timeline. Surround yourself with as much love, support, tenderness, and compassion as you can. Take a breath, cry, laugh, dance, curl up in a ball, reminisce, welcome joy, or sing your way through the special days, seasons, and holidays remembering that TIME is the most precious gift we can share with each other. The heart connection will always remain, no matter how we choose to live our lives without them. So why not make it count and live out the rest of our lives fully, in the name of love! Breathe and take good care of yourself. Grieving and mourning are normal, healthy, and precious.

About the Author

As a licensed health educator and life coach, Marni Henderson passionately guides others to reclaim themselves and rediscover deeply fulfilling lives when life throws a curveball. After experiencing her own devastating losses, she focused her wellness education practice to supporting the journey of creating life after loss. You can find her at Sunrise Retreats, her non-profit that offers retreats for widows, gives other women the opportunity to replenish, rejuvenate and rediscover themselves after the death of a spouse.

Oct 13th 2020 Marni Henderson

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