By Betty Ann Rutledge
Why is it that the longing for our loved ones often becomes more pronounced during the “holiday season”? Maybe it’s because so many of our special religious traditions and family holidays include the sharing of a meal – and we are painfully reminded of the death of our family member by the empty chair at the table.
Whether it is the lighting of the menorah at Hanukah , the traditional turkey dinner at Christmas, the festivities of Diwali, or the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr at the end of Ramadan – many family, religious and cultural observations at this time of year involve the gathering together of family and friends and the mutual enjoyment of food and drink.
What was once an opportunity for inner reflection and quiet prayerfulness, as well as outward celebration of laughter and joyfulness, takes on a new meaning for those who have experienced a death in the family. Ceremonies, events and gatherings that once called us into closer connection to our families, friends and ‘creator’ – filling our hearts with peace, renewal and a sense of belonging – may now provoke anxiety, loneliness, sadness, stress and a profound sense of renewed pain over the loss of our loved one.
No one can make the chicken soup with matzo balls for Rosh Hashanah like mom did. The laughter of brothers and sisters while exchanging gifts during Bhayyaduj. It was Dad who always took the family out to cut down the Christmas tree. The sound of laughter on the street at Halloween is too much to bear, when your own child has died. From September on – as we begin to experience the change of seasons, from warm, lightfilled days to dark and often cold nights – we are faced with a series of holidays and special occasions that we have to learn to navigate with our new reality of grief and loss.
We are flooded with the memories of past holidays when our loved ones were here and we wonder what the present holidays would be like if they were still with us. Even if we believe that we have found a way to cope with everyday life, the holiday season is a time that can bring a renewed sense of these painful feelings of grief.
There is no easy, step-by-step plan for “coping” with this challenging time of year, but we offer the following suggestions to keep in mind as you travel through this particularly difficult part of your journey, remembering that everyone grieves uniquely and there is no right or wrong way to manage your grief around this time of year.
Choose what is right for you
The holidays are stressful enough without trying to live up to other people’s expectations. Be gentle with yourself and firm with others, and give yourself permission to change your mind because what feels right from moment to moment and from year to year will change.
Recognize that the holiday won’t be teh same and be prepared for the feelings that come with that. Decide which family traditions you want to continue and which new traditions you want to begin. Some people find it helpful to be with family and friends, emphasizing the familiar. Others may wish to avoid old signs and sounds, perhaps even taking a trip. Others will find new ways to acknowledge the season.
Embrace your memories
Allow yourself to remember happy times, and allow yourself to laugh. If memories bring about sadness, then allow yourself to cry. Whether happiness or sadness, these feelings are a natural expression of our love for the person we have lost.
Listen to yourself
Grief affects all parts of our beings – emotional, physical, mental and spiritual – and it’s normal to feel stress in these areas. It is important to pay attention to the signals from your body, mind, heart and spirit: get enough rest, stop when you need to, find sources of comfort and tenderness and ask for help if and when you need it.
Try to seek balance
It’s perfectly okay to take time for yourself – but you may also need to find supportive and non-judgemental friends and family to spend time with as well. Isolation can be healing, but it can also accentuate your loneliness.
Speak your truth
People often try to avoid mentioning your loved one’s name in an attempt to avoid hurting you. Be honest and tell them if you want to hear and speak about your beloved family member. Let them know that you want your child, parent, sibling or spouse to be remembered and honoured during this time of year – as always. Tell people what you need and ask for the support that you require to make the best of the difficult moments ahead.
It’s even okay to celebrate
Some of us do feel moments of joy. In the midst of the sadness, we can remember our loved one with fondness and the feeling is more comforting than painful. We may want to find a tangible way to include them in our familiar rituals of celebration and reflection. By doing something that they loved: a walk in the snow, baking a favourite treat, making a holiday craft, singing a familiar carol – or having a special service, lighting a candle, volunteering or donating to a worthwhile charity in memory of your family member. A moment of joy may be accompanied by a pang of guilt for being happy, because joy comes from the same well as sadness.
Wishing that the light of healing and peace finds its way to you and your family.
Thanks to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), and the websites www.hospicefoundation.org, www.griefnet.org for some material that was used in the writing of this article.