Christmas joy. Dancing sugar plums. Storefronts dressed in holiday style.
Once upon a time, scenes such as these filled my Playbook of Christmas Cheer. What's not to love about a season of gaiety punctuated with Hallmark moments? Plenty, if you’re missing someone you love. Grieving people enter the holiday season feeling more like a member of the Island of Misfits to everyone else's Rudolph. Every pumpkin spice ad is a nostalgic reminder of Christmas past, and can herald a torrent of tears.
I remember the first year without Aly, our holiday-loving 15-year-old daughter who died in a car accident at summer’s end 2009. On top of indescribable grief, the approaching holidays filled me with an additional layer of sadness. Our tradition of unpacking yuletide decorations together was something I now faced alone. I had been reduced to a pile of ashes with no instructions for how to rebuild. How would I guide my family through the holidays? How would we survive such pain?
I didn't want to find out. I wanted to hit the pause button and skip over not just the holidays, but the entire next century. Bah humbug filled my heart like coal.
I felt like Ghosts of Christmas Past, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and Island of the Misfits all rolled into one giant mess.
But one look into my young grandson's eyes told me I couldn't skip Christmas. As much as nothing in my life felt normal, normalcy felt like the right thing to do. I had to carry on.
With a heart that now felt a thousand sizes too small, I was determined to proactively find a way to survive the holiday storm, if not for me, then for my family. It wasn’t easy, and autopilot often held the reigns of my sleigh. But the following steps guided me through those first few holiday seasons until my playbook once again filled with scenes of Christmas cheer, and I offer them here for any and all who find themselves facing the holidays without someone they love.
1. Maintain your routine. A familiar routine offers a sense of reassurance that at least one thing in life hasn’t changed, and the familiarity can help ground us through the holiday hustle. But if the idea of sticking to routine is more than you can bear, then honor your need to break tradition. In short, do what feels most soothing and apologize to no one.
2. Protect your time. Give yourself lots of breathing room, and avoid packing the schedule too full. Grieving is emotionally exhausting; plenty of rest will help minimize raw nerves through the flurry of shopping, school performances, and parties.
3. Cut some slack and buy store-bought. Since grieving is naturally distracting and the ER isn’t a great place to dine, let someone else operate the carving knife. Even the smallest kitchen disaster can quickly deplete coping skills. If the family expects your legendary dinner rolls, then cheat with gourmet mashed potatoes and gravy from the deli.
4. Treat yourself to TLC, and lots of it. Tenderly soothing individual body parts is an attentive way to honor your emotional pain. Wear a pair of luxury socks. Order whipped cream on your eggnog latte. Indulge in aromatherapy soap in the shower. Small gestures like these offer your physical body a reminder that not all pleasure is lost.
5. Skip the chaos. Take time to create peaceful surroundings. Turn off the computer, light a fragrant candle, grab a soft blanket, and binge-watch a good show.
6. Feel joy. Without guilt. Give yourself permission. If you find yourself humming to holiday music, don’t stop. The heart can feel joy the same time as sorrow, and it helps to balance the sadness. Allow yourself to experience moments of joy without guilt. Your spirit needs it.
7. Honor the past. Find a way to include your loved one’s memory in the festivities. Hang their stocking and fill it with cat toys or dog treats to share with the family pet on Christmas morning. Visit your loved one’s favorite coffee stand and pay it forward. Buy a small bouquet of balloons in your loved one’s favorite color and leave it in a public spot for a stranger to find.
8. Heal others. Do something in the community that lifts your spirits. It’s gratifying to help others, and is a good reminder that we aren’t alone in our struggles. It helps us keep perspective that the holidays can be hard for a variety of reasons, and helping others helps our own heart to heal.
9. Seek out support. A quick internet search will likely reveal a number of local groups led by seasoned grievers trained to hold a sacred space for your sorrow. If that isn’t your style, grab one of the books in the award-winning Grief Diaries series, or join me for a growing number of live Facebook events and virtual classes through the International Grief Institute without ever leaving your living room. No matter how you seek support, surrounding yourself with others who speak the language of sorrow is an important part of healing.
10. Cry. Give in to the tears. There is no shortage of raw emotions over the holidays, and crying is not a sign of weakness. It’s how we release intense feelings. A good cry can be very healing and serves as an important part of our journey.
I’ve now weathered enough silent nights without our daughter to know that although she will always be sorely missed every day of the year, restoring joy is possible.
Allow yourself to try a handful of the suggestions above to guide you through the emotional kaleidoscope that descends with every pumpkin spice ad. In the end, gift yourself a little compassion, kindness, and do whatever feels best to your heart until your playbook of Christmas Cheer holds joy—both past and present.