I remember our first Christmas after. Our nightmare began when our five-year old daughter Jackie, our baby and the life of any party, was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor in January 2000. She passed away in my wife’s arms and mine six weeks later on March 4th. She took our hearts with her when she left. Spring turned into summer, summer into fall, fall into winter, and then came the dreaded holidays!
Holidays are difficult days for the bereaved. Bereavement literally means to be robbed. The holidays are a time of giving but all we could think about was what was taken from us. For many, the most difficult holiday of the year is Christmas. This day more than any other is synonymous with family being together. It is at this time that we became acutely aware of the huge void in our lives. How do we have Christmas without Jackie? To make matters worse, Jackie’s birthday was on December 20th. She was our Christmas baby.
At the time I was the pastor of a dynamic church in Auburn, California. Church services went on, Christmas carols were still sung, and people wished everybody a “Merry Christmas.” But our thoughts were on Jackie, fixed more on her departure than on her arrival six years prior. Christmas was different that year. We hung a stocking for her, talked about her, lit a candle in her memory, and shed many tears. Sometimes showing up for something is the best you can do. We showed up that first Christmas and that was good enough.
But now, nine Christmas trees and nine silent nights later I’ve learned a few things about this journey of grief and getting through the holidays. I’d like to suggest 10 tips that might be helpful to you this holiday season.
- Develop a Plan
Be intentional and develop a plan in advance. It may be as simple as going to the cemetery to sit and talk with your loved one. Observe the holidays, as you want. Everyone has their own way of dealing with grief so be yourself. There is no right or wrong way to do this. It’s OK not to do what you’ve done in the past – be flexible. That first Thanksgiving or Christmas doesn’t have to become a tradition for all of the following years.
- Talk About Your Loved One
“We talk about the weather. We talk about work. We talk about everything else … except the elephant in the room. We all know it is there. It has hurt us all. But we do not talk about the elephant in the room. Oh, please, say her name. Oh, please, say “Jackie” again. For if we talk about her death, perhaps we can talk about her life.” (Taken from a poem called, “The Elephant in the Room” by Terry Kettering).
- Memorialize Your Loved One
Find a way to remember your loved one and memorialize them during the holidays. It might mean lighting a candle, writing a letter to your loved one and placing it under the tree, or creating an ornament with your loved one’s picture on it and hanging it on the tree. Make a memory book of your loved one or go to www.tributes.com and develop a tribute of your loved one on the Internet.
- Give Yourself Permission to Cry
Oftentimes, the bereaved are worried that they may cry during the holidays. Of course you will! It’s completely appropriate under the circumstances. Let it out. Crying cleanses the soul. Jesus wept. It’s part of God’s healing process and a normal human response to loss. Take lots of Kleenex with you!
- Give Yourself Permission to Laugh
You may feel like it’s not appropriate to laugh or feel good while you’re grieving. Laughter does not disrespect the memory of your loved one and it doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten them. In fact, the Bible says, “Laughter is good medicine for the soul.” (Proverbs 17:22). Laughter is not only healthy; it helps to reinvigorate you for the hard work of grief that lies ahead.
- Be Careful of “Shoulds”
As my friend Katie Brazelton says, “Don’t let anybody "should" on you!” Never let others take your grief away from you, minimize your loss, or tell you how you should or shouldn’t grieve. Avoid the “Tyranny of the Shoulds” yourself, as in: “I should send out cards, bake cookies, or go shopping.” Do what is most helpful for you and your family.
- Be Kind to Yourself
You have been wounded and are not at full strength. Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthy foods even if you don’t feel like it and get some exercise. Walk 15 minutes down the street and then walk back. Avoid alcohol and get some rest. Do something you like to do each day.
- Include Children
Children can feel confused, powerless, angry and anxious during the holidays because of a death in the family. Be honest with them. Explain that it is OK for them to cry and for adults to cry and that although they are feel really sad right now, they won’t always feel this sad. See what part of the holiday tradition is most important to them. Try to involve them in memorial rituals; for example, by asking them to draw or write down their favorite holiday memories of the departed loved one.
- Ask For Help
Realize you can’t get through this alone. Gravitate to where you are getting support. Allow people to help you. Now is the time to call all those friends and family members who said, “If you need anything – call me.” By allowing them to help, you are giving them a gift.
- Remember You Are Not Alone
King David said, “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4). Jesus said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5). One of the names for Jesus associated with the holidays is “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” Jesus is with you in your grief, especially during the holidays. The Scriptures say, “The LORD is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18).
p.s. Remember that the anxiety and dread that you may be experiencing leading up to the holidays is often worse than the actual experience of the holidays without your beloved one.
Special thanks to Galen Goben and Forest Lawn for helping me formulate some of my thoughts on Getting Through the Holidays.