Surviving the Holidays After a Loved One Dies

surviving the holidays

The death of a loved one at any time of year is hard. But as the holidays approach, it can get even harder. Even if you’ve had time to grieve and you’re feeling stronger, the holidays can hit you hard enough to knock you back to what feels like square one.

It’s important to remember that grief is not linear. It doesn’t go in a neat and tidy order, with all the pain and sadness packed into the beginning. Though it is true that time changes grief, it doesn’t make it go away. And when it does come stinging back, it can feel as fresh as it did during those first few days and weeks. The difference is that now, with the luxury of some time, you can probably better cope with it.

Here are some tips on how to get through the really difficult parts of the holidays.

Know that You Aren’t Alone

They say that grief is the price of love. Unfortunately, at some point almost all of us will suffer a loss. Grief is a universal emotion that unites all of us. In fact, grief is so universal that there are many statistics that make it clear just how united we are in that struggle. According to The Recovery Village, about 2.5 million people pass away every year, and each of those individuals leaves behind an average of five grieving people. That’s well over 12 million people in some stage of grieving a lost loved one at any given time.

And as you might imagine, older adults suffer the highest rates of grief[1]. That’s because spousal loss is more common among those who are elderly, as is the loss of friends, family members, and even their adult children. The older you get, the more likely you are to face the significant grief of losing a loved one.

Five Stages of Grief gives a rough guideline as to what to expect when grief hits. Keep in mind that grief is never a “first that, then this” situation. You can waver across all stages of grief in the span of an hour. Though you can expect the intensity to ease over time, don’t be surprised if every stage of grief comes roaring back during the holidays. This is especially true as you face the first year without your loved one to celebrate with you.

Tips for Dealing with Grief at the Holidays

The holidays are a perfect storm of events that can spike your grief to a whole new level. You’re entering a period of nostalgia, one where you will recall many events of the past. You might be surrounded by those who don’t want to talk about or face the reality that someone they loved is no longer there. You could be under a great deal of stress, which is unfortunately common at the holidays. And the fact that this is the first holiday without your loved one is likely a heavy weight on your mind.

Prepare yourself for the more difficult days with these tips:

Acknowledge you’re hurting. If it’s been several months since your spouse, elderly parent or other loved one passed away, you might feel as though you should be “over it.” But that’s not how grief works. The first holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays are a reminder that the person you love isn’t there anymore. Allow yourself some grace.

Plan on upholding traditions – or not. It might be very important to you do to everything the way that your loved one would have during the holidays. And that’s okay. But it’s also okay if you choose to nix some of the old traditions and create new ones. One good tradition to begin might be some sort of remembrance, such as a favorite dish at the table or a memorial ornament that you display every year.

Choose your tribe wisely. There will be always be a few individuals who know how it “should” be done and might chastise you for grieving “too long.” They might even accuse you of “ruining” the holidays because you can’t get into the spirit. It’s especially disheartening to encounter someone who doesn’t have patience with the process you’re going through.

Remember, right now, these are not your people. Don’t hesitate to keep your circle small and limited only to those who understand and are compassionate with you.

Practice self-care. This might be easier said than done. But good self-care can help alleviate sadness and make you feel more capable. Try these options:

·         Get enough sleep

·         Engage in relaxation techniques

·         Eat healthy foods and stay hydrated

·         Get more exercise, especially if it gets you out in the fresh air

·         Take a head-clearing drive

·         Call a friend to catch up

·         Lose track of time while reading or watching a movie

·         Take a trip to see someplace you’ve never been before or someplace that makes you happy

Put your health first. The last thing you want on top of the difficulty of this first holiday without your loved ones is dealing with illness or injury. This is not only the holiday season – it’s flu and COVID season, too! Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face (to avoid picking up germs) and rest if you’re feeling under the weather. Consider a medical alert wireless system with fall detection to give you peace of mind when you’re in the house or on the go. This can be especially comforting if you are feeling alone for the first time in years, as this service ensures help is standing by 24/7.

Give your time to your local charity or school. Did you spend the holidays around the dinner table before your loved one passed away? Take your cooking skills to a local shelter or church for the holidays. Or consider going to a local school to read to the kids. Doing something good for others can make the holidays a little easier.

Reach out to family and friends. Social media can be a powerful tool for bringing people together. It can also be a great way to reach out in the midst of your grief during the holidays. You can find far-flung relatives, old high school friends, or strangers in a support group, all of whom might bring a fresh perspective and help you through the more difficult moments. Healthline offers an excellent round-up of grief support groups. 

Have one-on-one celebrations. During those first holidays after your loved one has died, you might be completely overwhelmed by a large group of laughing, joyous people. Instead of putting yourself through that, you may prefer a series of small celebrations.

It’s okay to say no. While it could be great for you to get out among family and friends during the holiday season, it’s also easy to become overwhelmed. Keep a good balance by learning that it’s okay to say no. Declining invitations might disappoint some people, but for right now, your focus should be on what it takes to help you through the difficult moments. Try not to turn them all down – you also need to get out – but don’t hesitate to say no if you need to.

It’s okay to laugh. Enjoying yourself during the holidays might feel as though you are being disloyal to the person who is no longer here. Please remember that being happy is not in any way being disloyal to your loved one or forgetting about them. If you feel guilty after a good bout of laughter at the holiday party, take a deep breath, acknowledge the emotion, and let it go. The phrase “they would want you to be happy” is not a platitude – it’s the truth.

Get more help if you need it. Keep in mind that grief during the first few months can look very much like depression, and that’s why doctors won’t diagnose someone with depression in the two or three months after a loved one dies[2]. But sometimes grief can turn into chronic depression or anxiety. Educate yourself on the symptoms of depression and anxiety. If you are dealing with either, reach out to your doctor or a professional therapist to help you overcome them.

Find ways to honor your loved one. The options are endless! From lighting a candle in their memory to creating a foundation to further the causes they cared about, honoring the person you lost can be a great way to help you through the holiday season. Here are some good possibilities:

·         Consider donating to their favorite cause, creating a small memorial, or visiting a place that was special to them.

·         Volunteer at an animal shelter.

·         Donate medical alert technology to someone who needs it.

·         Offer their books or some clothing for distribution to the less fortunate.

·         Create their favorite meal for a holiday dinner.

·         Create a scrapbook of memories about them and ask others to contribute their photos, stories, and remembrances to it.

·         Place lovely flowers at their place at the table.

·         Collect gifts that would have gone to them and donate them to the local nursing home.

No matter how you choose to approach this holiday season, putting your own health and well-being first cannot be stressed enough. In addition to taking good care of yourself through plenty of sleep, good food and hearty exercise, take the time to look around your home and consider what might make life easier. You might want to splurge on pull-out shelves for your kitchen, a handheld showerhead for the bathroom, or even a walk-in tub. Medical alert technology is quite affordable and can give you the peace of mind that if you need help, it’s right there at the touch of a button. If you’re very active, consider a mobile medical alert system that travels with you everywhere you go as a way to treat yourself to better health. No matter what you choose to do to take care of yourself, remember to give yourself plenty of compassion and understanding throughout your grieving process, especially during the holiday season.