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Navigating the Holidays After Loss

Throughout my childhood, the holiday season was a welcome one. Thanksgiving and Christmas meant quality time with family. We prepared our best dishes to share. We put little differences aside to tell stories and play games. We showed love to one another through thoughtful gestures and kind words. They weren’t perfect, but they were always more joyful than difficult.

In 2003, when two of my brothers died by suicide, the holidays changed dramatically. The approaching season left me flooded with emotions that were hard to manage. I dreaded seeing my family – the once joyful holiday season had transformed to an immensely painful one. I had no idea how to act. Are we going to carry on as if nothing happened? Do we acknowledge that they are gone? Should we talk about the unimaginable grief we are feeling in the wake of an experience that left us all broken and changed forever? Or, should we pretend that things are okay? Perhaps we could stuff down the hurt and grief of missing them for just one day, so we can try to enjoy our precious time together…

Grief has a way of washing away memories. I can’t say I remember much about the first few holiday seasons after our losses and how we managed to move through them. I do know time gave us the space we needed to heal and to find joy in those seasons again. Our family growing also had a way of renewing us. While the holidays continue to bring a twinge of pain to my heart, they have also become more precious than ever – even before that year that changed everything.

If you are recently bereaved, by suicide loss or other means, please remember first and foremost to be kind and gentle to yourself. It is ok to not know how to celebrate. Its ok to not want to. Its ok to take a break from, or let go of, toxic family relationships. Its ok to change traditions and do something completely different than you ever have. It is ok to keep the old and hold on to as much tradition as you can. Its ok for family members to disagree on how to manage important family gatherings and holidays. Talk about what you need and want (it’s also ok if you don’t know). Listen to those who love you. It may help to discuss expectations before a big holiday, birthday, or anniversary to avoid hurt from unexpected plans.

If you are looking to try something new, here are some ideas:

  • Prepare and share your lost loved one’s favorite dish, beverage, or treat.

  • Play or sing your lost loved one’s favorite song or holiday music.

  • Lay a large light-colored tablecloth out with markers or sharpies for friends and family to share their favorite holiday memories, especially of those who are no longer present. Consider using it annually to collect years of memories.

  • Light a candle or special light up decoration on a holiday or through a season to honor their memory.

  • Create a candle ceremony by gathering in a circle with unlit candles. Light one and share a memory or time when you felt your loved one’s presence. Light the candle of the person next to you so they can do the same. Go around the circle until everyone’s candle is lit. Close the ceremony with a song, prayer, or poem-however you see fit and what fits your family.

  • Share a song, lyric, prayer, quote, verse, poem or other writing to honor your lost loved one.

  • Give to a cause that was important to your loved one.

  • Visit a place that helps you feel close to your loved one.

  • Hold a moment of silence to honor your lost loved one.

  • Similarly to how we might read a traditional book at bedtime during the holidays, tell a story every year of a holiday when your loved one was alive.

  • Set a place at the table for your lost loved one.

  • Start a fire in your fireplace, write your regrets from the year or from the circumstances surrounding your loss and put them in the fire as a symbolic way of starting fresh.

  • Go out to a restaurant instead of preparing a meal or host the gathering at a different location than usual.

  • Take a trip with your family.

  • Discuss taking a year off from gift giving if that is part of your tradition.

  • Bring home or plant flowers or a tree to honor your lost loved one.

  • Buy or make a special holiday decoration to honor them, alone or as a group.

Remember that there is no wrong way to celebrate, including not celebrating at all. You will survive this. You will find a pattern that makes sense for you again. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to lean on those who love you and show yourself some compassion along the way.

"Grief cannot be torn down, or scaled, or overcome, or outsmarted. It can only be outlasted." -Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior


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