This is my favorite time of year. Nearby mountains cloaked in winter white, gaggles of geese discussing where to winter, family and friends gathering and giving thanks and eating way too much pie and lighting menorah candles and decking the halls and welcoming in a New Year.
And yet, the holidays aren’t the same when cancer shows up, or when there’s a job lay-off, or when the most precious person on the planet is no longer here.
So I asked the experts—friends who have weathered profound loss—how they managed their sorrow in this sometimes no-tidings-of-comfort-and-joy season.
“Whether it’s stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while the turkey cooks, or family movie night,” writes Michele Brennan Psy.D. in an online article about the benefits of family rituals, “traditions are a wonderful way to anchor family members to each other.”
A widower reported that his kids wouldn’t let him even think about not hosting Thanksgiving after their mom died. With their help, he did just that. And it’s remained an annual tradition. “We’ve fed as many as fifty people,” wrote my friend.
But sometimes traditions need to be temporarily set aside. A young widow with a son wrote, “I ran away for the first two years before I was ready to begin new traditions without my husband. I had to experience new memories elsewhere before I was ready to make them at home.”
And sometimes there’s a need for unique traditions. A family whose teenaged son died of cancer on the day of his twin sisters’ birthday has a practice of dividing up the day. “[Our son] asked us to have a party and give a gift from him to his siblings so that’s what we do to commemorate his birthday in heaven,” his mother explained. “In the morning, we celebrate his life, and in the afternoon, we celebrate our girls.”
It would be easy, and certainly understandable, to put off giving gifts since sorrow drains our energy. But consider easy hand-crafted items: Soup mix layered in a Mason jar, one of those cool slouchy knitted hats, or homemade granola. Because creating and giving to people we love helps gladden our hearts.
A widower friend who enjoys being in the kitchen made cranberry nut bread as gifts for everyone the year his wife died.
The Advent Conspiracy – a website that advocates spending less but giving more – suggests tickets to a ball game or a movie. And of course the tickets come with you attached:
The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself.
Lighting up the season
Last year at this time, I exited a restaurant in a touristy section of town at dusk. Every tree trunk was wrapped with white lights that spread upward into the lower branches. And I held my breath at its simple beauty.
There is science behind the use of light to help lift our spirits. Go ahead, light candles. Put up tiny white lights. Light the fireplace. And see if that doesn’t help chase away the gloom.
Family and friends
During a time when you don’t feel as if there’s anything worth celebrating, let people love on you.
One widow said she couldn’t be around her family because they thought she should be through grieving. Instead, she was rescued by a young family that took her in. “They literally came to my home, made me get dressed, and took me for Christmas dinner with their larger family. I love their two little boys, so I had to pull myself together for them and I think they knew that.”
I talked about my husband, Gary, frequently that first Christmas without him. It seemed the natural thing to do. “Remember when Dad used to …” and, “Grandpa would have said, ‘Good night; sleep tight; don’t bite the bed bugs!’” as I tucked in the youngest granddaughter. Gary’s sister once thanked me for talking about him. “It gives us permission to share our memories,” she said.
A widowed friend wrote something similar: “My husband is still a presence during the holidays with our telling of memories, which brings much laughter.”
I’ve learned that when I fill my life with gratitude, there’s less room for distress. My list has grown quite long: Magic of snow falling, all six grandkids in one zany FaceTime call, scarf taking shape in knitted softness, settled indoors with the sound of freight trains blowing through tall pine, music playing on Pandora.
Being in service can help focus our attention off our own losses. “Our church has a Giving Tree during the holidays,” wrote a friend. She gets great pleasure from choosing a tag or two, and then shopping and wrapping gifts for children from low-income families.
A couple purchased property with the intent of building a cabin and offering it to people needing respite. Before it was completed, the husband died. His widow named the property Tom’s Rest and has worked nonstop to get it ready for use. “Nothing would make me feel better than seeing his hard work touch people’s lives.”
A friend once spent Christmas in a children’s hospital with her infant daughter. People sang carols in the hallways and Santa delivered stuffed animals and a hand-sewn baby blanket. My friend now buys stuffed animals and takes them to the same children’s hospital: “It’s my favorite Christmas tradition!”
Gary’s and my faith was a critical component in dealing with cancer and subsequent loss. And it remains so in widowhood. If there hadn’t been a sense of purpose that settled over us, the hard road would have been devastating. But in time the desolation was replaced with deep peace.
Trying to manage loss on top of the seasonal hustle-and-bustle can produce double the stress. Consider these de-stressing tips:
Make a ‘Deposit Here’ box. Label a small box with: “Things I will eventually get to, but not today/ this week/ this season.” Write down all that weighs heavily upon you, and place the slips of paper in the box instead of clutching the load.
Listen to soaring music. Use headphones; turn up the volume and see what instruments you can identify. Guitar. Cello. French horn. Tympani. (“We Three Kings” by the Piano Guys is a perfect piece for this exercise.)
Sign up for a craft/art class. Water colors, calligraphy, clock-making. Because creativity diminishes stress. And who knows, what you produce could be a gift for someone on your list.
Keep a journal through the holidays. Write honestly about your hopes and fears. Every morning, I make a cup of tea and write in my journal, which has probably saved thousands of dollars in psychotherapy costs through the years.
Take a walk in nature. Pay attention to your surroundings: Snow-capped mountains, water rushing over boulders, birdsong, smell of pine, busy creatures preparing for the winter months.
A friend’s husband died when her children were young. Years later, her daughter said: “When dad died it was really horrible … but I like who I became.”
Which brings me to my holiday wish list:
May your sorrow shape you into someone you like, someone even more beautiful than you already are.
May we never stop counting blessings.
May unimaginable peace shower down all around you.
P.S. If you know someone who is facing the holidays with loss, please share, tweet or pin.