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Dealing with Loss During the Holidays

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, so when you’re surrounded by cheerful music and festive celebrations it seems mean-spirited to admit to stress or feelings of sadness. And yet the very reasons why the holidays are so magical—the traditions, the time spent with loved ones—can also make this season difficult. If you’re grieving or if your loved one is in the final stages of an illness, or if you’re the one who is too sick to travel to a family gathering, these tips might help.

When You Can’t Be With Your Loved Ones

One way to cope with the changes is to look for something positive to focus on. You might remind yourself that, as your family has grown, you’ve found holiday gatherings increasingly exhausting so it’s nice to spend the day quietly, on your terms. Instead of missing everyone, remember that you are protecting yourself from the chaos that family gatherings often bring. By staying home, you are giving yourself the opportunity to celebrate around your health, getting together with family and friends when you feel up to it.

On the actual holidays, here’s what you can do to create a festive environment:

  • Stay in touch with those you love. Do you have a computer with a webcam, or a tablet or smartphone? Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger are popular services that allow you to have face-to-face conversations.
  • Set the table the way you want. Cooking a lavish meal with all the trimmings is a lot of effort, but you can still have a feast—and you can have it on your terms. Instead of a turkey, consider roasting a chicken or Cornish game hens, and prepare only the side dishes you love. If cooking isn’t among your talents, order a meal from a local restaurant, caterer, or even a supermarket. Set the table with your favorite place settings and add a pretty centerpiece—or use paper plates if that’s what you’re up for.
  • Schedule brief visits. If you aren’t up for hosting the whole family or attending big parties, consider whether a few smaller gatherings, spread over a few days or even weeks, would work. Invite one or two couples over for a quiet evening, or perhaps have your children’s families over individually for small celebrations.

When Loss Is Imminent

If your loved one is in the final stages of an illness over the holidays the sense of impending loss can be magnified. “My dad died on New Year’s Eve,” remembers Linda Kelley. “He had cancer, and we knew the end was near, but he and my mom tried to make everything as normal as possible. I remember we spent our Christmas vacation planning his funeral! This was 35 years ago, and it’s still hard to go out and see everyone throwing confetti and blowing noisemakers and wishing each other, ‘Happy New Year!’ I usually avoid big parties, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s less painful in the long run to honor my dad’s memory by lifting a glass to him, rather than letting the holiday dredge up my grief.”

When you’re facing an imminent loss:

  • Reduce the pressure. Don’t overextend yourself, don’t go out of your way to make this the “best” year ever—instead, pay attention to the small, quiet moments you spend with your loved one.
  • Banish guilt. Remember that it’s okay to have fun and to laugh. You aren’t bad or disloyal if you let yourself get caught up in the festivities and enjoy yourself.
  • Resist the urge to overindulge. Taking care of yourself physically will give you the strength you’ll need for the “down” days. Try to work a little exercise into your day (even if it’s getting off the bus or subway one stop farther) and get plenty of rest.

Facing the Holiday Season After a Loss

Holidays are rife with memories and rituals, and once-joyful occasions can trigger profound sorrow and reminders of your loved one’s absence. “The first holidays after my husband died was horrible,” says Nancy Berman. “I couldn’t understand why people were happy when my loss was so profound and so fresh. But what surprised me was that the second year was even worse! I was in such a daze the first year, and friends and family surrounded my kids and me from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. The second year was much less blurry emotionally, and much more difficult for all of us. We switched things up a little—we did some of the traditional things, but we also started some new traditions.”

If your loss is recent:

  • Change the surroundings. Whether you switch things up by going out of town for Thanksgiving or putting the menorah or tree in a different room, a new setting can lessen the reminder of your loss.
  • Trust yourself. Don’t feel obligated to keep up with family traditions. If it doesn’t feel right to do something you’ve “always” done, give yourself permission to skip it this year.
  • Keep the memory of your loved one alive. If your husband had a favorite charity, donate the money you would’ve spent on his present in his name. Make your mom’s signature recipe to bring to a holiday potluck.

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