It has been imprinted on our psyche from an early age that holidays are the time to spend with our family and loved ones. In an ideal world with complete happy and well-functioning families, that is a wonderful thing. However, what if we are still grieving the loss of a family member who has passed, or we live in a split-up family, or we cannot seem to make the dream of a family come true due to fertility issues or not finding the right partner, or we are experiencing another loss, like the loss of our health, our job, our pet, our home and so on? There are so many situations in which the holidays can deepen our sadness and magnify our pain.
The loss of a family member—whether loved or not so loved—or the break of the original family unit, tends to bring out in families what already existed under the surface but could be ignored until the loss occurred. Those relationships which were struggling prior to the loss now become obvious. Missing bonds, hurt feelings, dysfunctional family patterns are suddenly right out in the open. The loss of one family member or the split of the family into two separate units naturally changes the dynamics between everybody. Coupled with the grief everybody is feeling and expressing differently, the issues which were already part of this family’s interactions are multiplied. Suddenly, family members are triggering each other into emotional responses, and the ideal of the harmonious peaceful holiday time seems to go up in smoke.
- There is the young woman who has been trying to conceive for eight years now and who is supposed to spend the holidays with her in-laws and with not just one, but two pregnant and much younger sister-in-law’s. The soon to be grandparents, who do not know about her struggles, are ecstatic. Her own pain is equally big and seems unbearable, but worse is her Inner Critic that tells her not to be so selfish and that she should be happy for her sister-in-law’s.
- There is the son, who always felt that he couldn’t measure up to his brother and compete for the love of his mother. After the death of his father, he feels even more isolated, has a fallout with his mom, and chooses not to spend Christmas with his family.
- There is the widower whose wife used to be his best friend, his lover, his one and all and who is still trying to come to terms with her dying from an aggressive form of cancer within only a few months. He has no children to help him through this first Christmas alone and will need a friend to reach out to him.
- There is the daughter, who felt she had to side with her mother against her father in a divorce and did not get another opportunity to have a relationship with him as she was growing up. She learns the limiting belief that men can’t be trusted and that close relationships with men are unavailable to her. She chooses to get back into an unfulfilling relationship just before Christmas when it is the hardest to be alone.
- There is the granddaughter, who was very close to her grandmother and experiences her being replaced by her grandfather’s new girlfriend soon after. She feels deep sadness and starts to wonder about men and their loyalties. When she invites her grandfather for Christmas Eve as it is their family tradition, he refuses and spends the evening with his new girlfriend; her beliefs are confirmed.
- There is the widow, who forces herself to do everything as usual to be strong for the kids and she shoulders not just her former workload but also the one of her deceased husband. By the time Christmas Eve arrives, she is taken to the hospital with a lung infection she has ignored.
These are all real people I am referring to and I could go on but I would rather share some strategies of how to get through the holidays when there is a recent or unprocessed loss, whether that is the loss of a person, or a relationship, or a dream.
The first decision to make is, do you even want to go through the regular Christmas routine? You can change the routine to something more normal like ordering in food and watching a movie together. Anything that feels too overwhelming, you are allowed to skip. The big holiday decorations, the festive meal, sending holiday cards, buying gifts for people beyond your immediate family, spending time with family members that trigger your sense of loss… Whatever it might be that makes you feel like you are simply going through the motions, give yourself permission to drop. There is no right or wrong way to do the holidays. In fact, loss has a way of encouraging us to evaluate what parts of the holidays feed our soul and which parts don’t. It is even okay to cancel the holidays altogether and to go away. Often a change of scenery is exactly what you might need.
If you want to spend the holidays in your traditional way with your family, be gentle with yourself and compassionate with others. We all grieve in a different way. What might look like anger or even destruction can hide a lot of pain, what might seem like indifference might be an equally strong protection from feeling the loss. We are literally not ourselves when we are grieving. The first time to make major decisions is right after a big loss when our emotions are flying high.
Nobody asks to experience a loss, or as a client of mine phrased it: “The splitting up of my family was never what I wanted, never what I imagined, never what I dreamed of.” Yet, at the other side of the grief we realize that we are not alone. Everybody experiences losses at some point in their life. We can always reach out to the Greater Power and asked to be carried through a time like the holidays. Remember that we are all connected.
Allow others to help. There is no shame in needing help, on the contrary. Accept their practical help at this time of the year, and share with them what is going on for you internally. Let them know they are not expected to fix anything, but that it helps to simply vocalize your thoughts and feelings. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about? Love and support?
Remember that crying is okay. You do not need to be strong for others. Acknowledging your own sadness and grief can help others to do the same. Make sure you talk to kids as their grief can be overlooked or forgotten. Explain to them what is happening and why you feel the way you feel. Often children have a healthier attitude towards death than we do as adults, but they still need to process the loss of a loved one who passed or the loss of their family which broke apart.
If you are getting together with your family and you want to remember the family member you have just lost, communicate beforehand how you would like to do that. Allow everybody to partake or also to not partake, keeping in mind that we all grieve differently. If it feels right, you could light a candle or share memories or photos of your family member. Consider what this person’s legacy is and how you as a family want to continue living this legacy. Were they perhaps a charitable person or known for helping others? Were they musical or loved telling jokes? Did they like arts and crafts? Where they a good listener? etc. You might then decide to donate something to charity in their name, bring in the music or jokes, make a holiday ornament in their memory, adopt your loved ones listening stance and so on.
And last but not least, if you have been putting off getting professional help and for example seeing a coach or counsellor, now might be the right time. The holidays are tough to get through. Reach out to get the support you need.
Contact Angelika for grief work or fertility work
If you want to read more about how grief accumulates you can read the article “Recovering from Our Losses”.
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