Handling Special Days and Holidays

No one has to remind you that your loved one has died; you live with that reality on a daily basis.  However, special days like anniversaries, birthdays, national holidays, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Years and days that were special to you and your loved one seem to intensify the emotions you are already feeling.

Why does my grief seem to be worse or more difficult on Special Days and Holidays?

When a loved one dies, you experience a wide range of feelings; your sense of reality and what was normal have changed.  You find yourself struggling to understand what is happening to you physically, emotionally and spiritually as you travel your grief journey.  When a special day like an anniversary or a birthday or a national holiday come around, your feelings seem to intensify because holidays are filled with the emotions and memories of how you shared that special day with your loved one.  You are taken back in time and reminded of the special memories you shared with your loved one.  The rituals and traditions you shared will never be the same.  You are reminded once again just how long it has been since your loved one died.  The void in your life seems even bigger as you realize that memories created from now on will be void of the special loved shared.

You may find yourself longing for your loved one’s presence to help you make the particular holiday feel special again.  You may wish to make all holidays just go away so you do not have to feel the heart squeezes created by the absence of your loved one in the celebrations but, this is impossible.  Time goes on and even if you tried to forget the holiday, calendars, seasonal decorations, music on the radio, television ads, family members and your own emotions will pull you into the reality of these special days.  In fact, sometimes it may not be a special day or a holiday from the past that brings on the emotional upheaval.  It may be a graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child, grandchild or some event in the future that floods your mind and heart with emotions that can seem overwhelming as you long to share the joy.

While Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year and Kwanza all cluster together to create a sort of season, it is not just these days that can bring on the emotions of your grief.  It may be Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or a special family holiday like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.  It may be a day that was special between you and your loved one.

So, What Can You Do?

First and foremost, honor your feelings.  By trying to ignore the feelings of grief, you just prolong your grief journey.  Allow yourself to feel mad, sad or even scared and realize these feelings are normal.  You can use them to grow and develop a new identity. It helps to know how these feelings can help you take action and build memories.  When you allow yourself to live through the hurt, joy can return to warm your heart.

When you are mad, you can use that energy to get things accomplished – you can put motion to the emotion and do things that seem repetitious like baking, or wrapping presents or addressing cards.  Create a special event like a memory walk or develop a scholarship fund in your loved ones name.  You might also use the energy to create a new ritual or a special gift for your family to honor the life of your loved one.

Sadness can be a feeling that you are encouraged not to have by those around you because they don’t want you to be unhappy, but, the reality is that you are sad.  So use the time to reflect, look back into the life you shared with your loved one.  Review the holidays and special days you shared to help you create memories to identify the rituals you want to hold onto for you.  You can use this time to evaluate what has meaning for you and your family and determine what you are going to do to make sure you live each day to its fullest.

When you feel scared; look for answers.  Begin by making a list of things you fear most about the upcoming holiday or special day.  Once you have identified the things you anticipate being difficult, look for ways to handle them.  For instance, if you are afraid of facing the empty chair at the dinner table – decide how you can handle that.  Perhaps, you take the chair away from the table, let someone else sit in it as a chair of honor, move your celebration to a different room or location, eat out, or leave the chair empty and place a single rose at the place setting to honor the love you shared with your loved one.  Being scared helps you prepare for unexpected moments that might overwhelm you.  Being scared helps you look for answers and options to avoid the fear or to address it head on.  When you begin to plan for the days that you expect will be difficult, you take control of them.  They do not control you.

Keep things simple.

Look at rituals of the past and hold on to the ones that make your celebration special.  If there are things you can let go of to reduce your stress, like not sending holiday cards or baking the birthday cake, then let go.  Just because you don’t do something this year doesn’t mean that you can’t bring that ritual or activity to next year’s celebration when your emotions aren’t so raw.

Plan a New Ritual.

Whatever the holiday; look for ways to include the memory of your loved one in your celebrations.  Light a candle to honor your loved one, buy a gift for someone else (a homeless person, a Christmas angel, a person at a nursing home) and give the gift in your loved one’s memory.

Create a special decoration for your door, your table or your Christmas tree in memory of your loved one.  Send flowers for the church altar, for tables at a nursing home or members of your family to celebrate your loved one’s life.  Think creatively about things your loved one liked—hobbies, gardening, writing, music, etc.—and build your rituals around those things.  Your loved one’s physical presence will be missed but your memories live on as you celebrate those things that were special to you, to your loved one and the rest of your family.

Reach out to others.

Look for ways to help others as a way to share the values you and your loved one shared.  Be a better neighbor, friend and family member.  Reconnect with your faith, look for meaning in life and embrace living.  Your loved one lived, you loved them and you still do and you always will, by sharing the values that were such an important part of your relationship, your loved one lives on in you.