It’s the season of hope and wonder, of parties and cookie and decking the halls. We are told to have a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah and we say the same in return.
And sometimes we are neither Merry nor Happy.
The winter holidays can be stressful even for those who love them and “Martha to the Max.” But for those experiencing grief and loss, the first winter holidays without someone they love, they can be especially challenging.
This year there will be many who have lost loved ones in fires and hurricanes, through accidents and illness. Add to that the loss of a home or a job and the holidays don’t seem so merry and bright. For many years I volunteered at a family grief center and clearly the winter holidays were the hardest time. If you are dealing specifically with grief or loss issues, these tips on getting through the holidays might be helpful. And if you are not currently on that grief journey, you may see some ways you can help someone who is.
Sometimes Tradition, Sometimes Not
A dear friend facing a challenging holidays said recently, “I’m dreading the traditional this year. The new experiences I am looking forward to, but the old ones — I don’t know.”
Too much food, too much stress, too much pressure and too little time. Add to it a major life change and the old-familiar may be a little too tough.
So, give yourself a break. I’d never advocate changing traditions that work, but consider trying something new. Good grief, even if you’re happy as a clam, try something new, whether it’s a cookie recipe or a change of venue! It may become a new tradition or maybe it’s just an event for this year to help shake things up in a good way.
You may see your best (and most unexpected) holiday concert ever. Enjoy a walk through a dazzling winter wonderland on a zoo walk. Sample far too many treats as you stroll through a holiday gallery walk. Go caroling for the first time since college. Watch “The Nutcracker” live or on video.
Consider a road trip. If being home is too hard, venture to a new place or accept the holiday invitation to spend it at the home of friends or relatives. It doesn’t have to be a permanent tradition, but it might make the first year under new circumstances a little easier.
And if your friend is grieving? Help out with a surprise meal of pasta, salad (in a bag makes it easy, if not exciting!) and some crusty bread. And if you can, join them. Dinner alone can be tough for the newly widowed.
Be willing to listen — to sadness, to memories, to fears for the future. And remember, loss can be complicated. Not everyone is sad for a death — they may be sad for what was and now can never be. Don’t assume you know how they feel. You might know how you think you would feel but everyone’s experience with a person who died is unique.
Welcome the Person Who Is No Longer With Us by Remembering
You might light a candle in someone’s honor — whether it is at the dinner table or privately. Honor the light they brought to your life. Or stop by the cemetery to lay a pine bough or some holly.
I have the “Dad” Christmas tree (with ornaments that reflect things he loved) and the “Mom” tree, with ornaments that were some of her favorites along with new ones that I know she’s love.
Try a helium balloon flight — write a note to the loved one, tie it to the string of the balloon, then let it go high in the air. This is especially meaningful for children. When I was volunteering in the grief center, the annual balloon launch was the “event of the year” and the kids and adults alike valued sending up their thoughts to their loved one.
If stitching is your thing, consider making ornaments from one of their clothing garments or jewelry or use something that was part of them as part of your holiday decorating. Or ask your crafty friend if they can make you something in the year ahead — a stuffed bear or tree ornaments, for example. This year my friend Suzanne gave me several necklaces of her mother’s, whom I knew and liked very much. She thought I might pass them on to charity. They are costume jewelry but that long strand of pearls and another necklace are now a beautiful beaded garland on one of my trees. The others will be given away but these memories of Nolda will remain on my tree for years to come.)
Do Something that Might Make You Feel Like You Are Making a Difference.
It can be hard to give back when you feel you have nothing left to give, but volunteering doesn’t mean just working at an organized activity with a major time commitment. You may have an elderly neighbor who might not easily be able to wrap gifts for the family. A couple of gift
bags, some tissue and you’re good to go — you’ll make that person’s day and you’ll feel pretty great yourself. Park yourself in the lobby of the nursing home or assisted living site or in a room at your church after Sunday services, loaded with wrapping paper.
Often I do what I call my “Random Acts of Christmas” — chipping in $5 at the grocery cashier to go toward the order of the old man behind me, anonymously of course. Priming the meter or parking attendant with another dollar’s worth for the next user. An anonymous gift to someone who needs a lift. Once you start, it is really hard to stop.
Most of All, Be Gentle with Yourself
Remember, holidays can be tough on a good day. There are parties when you don’t feel like partying, a whole lot of sugar and butter, things to do, like shopping and wrapping and mailing — presumably with a deadline, and so much more. Sometimes it’s good to
go out, see friends, make merry. Sometimes that’s even very healing.
But there are other times when you just can’t. Don’t beat yourself up over it. People will understand. If the cards don’t get out, it’s not a crisis. If you can’t bear to write the holiday letter that covers your year, skip it and just send a card or an e-card.
Pick a few things to do — not everything. Talk it over with your kids (young and older, too) and let them know where you stand, and learn where they do. You can probably come to consensus.
As a friend, if you are headed to the store or the post office, ask if you can pick up groceries or stamps. Bring a tray of crudites instead of cookies, maybe with a light dip or cold shrimp and sauce. There are loads of ways you can help someone take care.
Remember, There IS Hope. And There IS Wonder.
It may feel impossible to find hope when things dark and sad. But it’s the time we need it most. And seeing the wonder of the world may just be an important part of the antidote. The twinkling lights, whether on your own tree or in a shop window. The smile on a child’s face. The grateful appreciation for an act of kindness. The quiet snowfall on Christmas Eve. The blanket of stars in an inky night sky or the dazzling pinks and lavenders of the perfect sunset. There is wonder in the love we have known, that great gift that carries us through.
And there is wonder in the cycle of life, of knowing that flowers will bloom, leaves will change into a glorious array of colors and snow will fall. The sun will rise and set and the world will spin its orbit. And with it comes the hope that next year will be a little kinder, a little easier, a little more settled.
I will not wish you a Happy Holiday — I’ll leave that to you, and it may be hard. But I will offer my wishes for peace and healing and the hope that you will find even just a wee bit of wonder to help you in your journey this season. May that star shine brightly to lead you into a new year of hope.
About the Author: Jeanie Croope
After a long career in public broadcasting, Jeanie Croope is now doing all the things she loves — art, photography, writing, cooking, reading wonderful books and discovering a multitude of new creative passions. You can find her blogging about life and all the things she loves at The Marmelade Gypsy.