“As you approach the holidays, remember: grief is both a necessity and a privilege. It comes as a result of giving and receiving love. Don’t let anyone take your grief away. Love yourself. Be patient with yourself. And allow yourself to be surrounded by loving, caring people.”
— Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Center for Loss and Transition
The year she turned five, Maya played Santa Claus in her daycare’s Christmas pageant. Her fake white beard stuck straight out from her chin and when she cocked her head and belted “Ho, ho, ho,” I burst out laughing. This year, the image of her impish little face and her red Santa Claus suit stuffed with a pillow are vivid for me, and bring joy.
But looking at her photos as Santa made me sob during the years right after her death. I missed her terribly and memories of holidays past were hard to bear. Looking back, I wonder how I got through them.
Grief is tough at any time. But during the holidays, it can seem unendurable. There’s no shortage of advice on how to manage grief at this time of year – a brief Internet search turns up dozens of tips. I view this smorgasbord of advice with mixed feelings: gratitude that it exists and knowledge that there is no formula that works for everyone.
After 21 years of grief recovery, here’s what I’ve discovered:
Your grief is unique to you – it can’t be said often enough – we all grieve differently. For some, keeping busy is a panacea, for others slowing down is more healing. Do what works for you. New research shows that grief oscillates from day to day, even moment to moment. So staying tuned in to what you need is important
Grief changes over time – during the early months and years of grief, we feel raw and vulnerable. We may be in shock for many months. And when the shock wears off, in dreadful pain. It took seven years before I could truly say I enjoyed Christmas again. If we’re lucky, life is long and our grief will soften over time. Now, the memory of Maya in her Santa costume makes me smile. But it took a long time for the transition from tears and heartache to acceptance and even joy.
Self-care is always a wise approach – Grief is hard, exhausting work. Busy holiday schedules make it hard to slow down and make time for a relaxing bath, or favorite music, or even a massage. But these are essential activities for the bereaved. Long walks in nature, a funny movie, time with a close friend – whatever works for you. Make the time to care for your wounded heart.
Setting boundaries is key – It can be hard to say no to invitations or to let go of time-honored traditions. But in the early phase of grief, it is essential to set boundaries. Do only those things you truly want to do and only with people who bring you comfort and ease. Give up your fantasy of the perfect holiday.
Keep your loved one close – Each year I do something special in honor of Maya. At first, it was a bouquet of flowers in her stocking, or a gift to a charity in her name. Continue to keep your loved one part of your celebration. Share memories of holidays past. Love and grief are twin sisters. One could not exist without the other, so honor your love as well as your grief.
Live in the present – Enjoy all that is part of your life today. Let the people you love know how you feel. I’m fortunate to have my surviving daughter Meghan and her family to celebrate with. The older I get, the more grateful I become. This goes double at times when my friends and family are near, if only in spirit. If the holidays are hard for you, make a gratitude list at the end of each day with at least three things you appreciate. Even in the midst of loss, there is so much to be thankful for.
Above all, remember the return of the light. Ancient wisdom traditions celebrate the solstice, when long hours of darkness begin to shift to more moments of light. At some point in your journey, your grief will begin to shift. Celebrate that!