Since childhood, I’d always reveled in my status as a “parent person.” My mom and dad were my best friends, my biggest source of encouragement and guidance, a joy (for the most part) to hang out with, the ones who made special milestones and seasons, well, the most special. I was lucky, and I knew it.
But at just 34 years old, I found myself without them. My mom was killed in a car accident when I was 30, and a few years later, my father suffered a fatal heart attack. Quickly and without warning, I went from being a “parent person” to being a person without living parents. My mother and father would never meet my future husband. I would never place my babies in their arms.
I now have years of experience and expertise in grief—personal, of course, but also professional, as cofounder of the website Modern Loss and coauthor of a book by the same name. I know firsthand that no matter whom you lost, and no matter how many years have passed since it happened, grief never leaves you. I also know that for many of us who have lost loved ones, the holiday season—which comes with its own stressors—can be especially hard to bear. “A lot of things are at play toward the end of the year that can really bring grief roaring back,” says Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief therapist and author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief. “It’s not just the festive season, with beloved rituals and ongoing celebrations. It’s also a time when the days are shorter and temperatures are dropping throughout much of the country.”
But it’s possible to reclaim this time of year in a significant way, as I’ve slowly learned to do through trial and error. With some effort, creativity, and a heavy dose of self-care, you can reshape beloved rituals and create new ones that are uniquely meaningful to you—just like your loss. Here’s some of the best advice I’ve found:
Pick One Tradition to Carry On
When someone on whom you always relied for holiday rituals is gone (your husband who hung the lights, your mom who made the turkey), it can feel as though the comfort and magic of the season, along with countless practical details, rests entirely on your shoulders. Plus, every sentimental commercial and offhand comment from coworkers (“Oh, I’m going shopping with my mom this weekend”) serves as a reminder of the club you’re no longer in.
Understand that completely replicating past celebrations down to the smallest detail can be very difficult. Instead, consider choosing one treasured ritual, like opening gifts in your sister’s preferred order or watching your husband’s favorite holiday film, and give yourself permission for flexibility on the next holiday if your grief is in a different place then, suggests Alysha Lacey, program director at the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon. This kind of selectivity allows you to foster a sense of connection without exhausting yourself physically and mentally, or turning the month into an emotional minefield. For example, since her father died seven years ago, Valentina Vitols Bello, of Seattle, has doled out crisp $1 bills to family members and friends on many New Year’s Eves. “My father would always write the year on them with a Sharpie and gift them as a symbol of prosperity for the year to come,” she says. “I also keep the ones he gave me with my Christmas stuff, so I can get to see them every holiday season.”
Have Some Fun
Bringing a little levity to an emotionally charged period can be surprisingly empowering and help you build a community. Amanda Johns Perez, of Los Angeles, heads to McDonald’s each December in memory of her dad, whose favorite sandwich was the chain’s signature burger. “Dave Johns Memorial Big Mac Day started as something my immediate family could do, wherever we were,” she says. “But over the years, people who didn’t even know my father have joined in. Each photo I receive of drive-through lines takes a little sting out of the day and makes the start of the season more bearable.”
I acknowledge my dad in a similar way. When I was a teenager, he embarrassed me annually by displaying a 10-foot-tall menorah (that he built himself!) on our front lawn, complete with holiday lights. Now that he’s gone, I honor that uniquely creative act by inviting friends to the world’s largest menorah lighting, near Central Park. It’s a wonderful way for them to get to know a piece of his personality, and for me to not be alone in my thoughts.
Invite Someone in Need
The loss of a loved one rips a hole in the family fabric, one that can be painfully obvious at the dinner table, when you’re used to seeing that person in their usual place. One woman tells me she fills the void by inviting someone dealing with emptiness in her own life. For the past few years, she has been joined by a family friend who, due to new custody arrangements, can no longer spend Christmas with her own kids. “It’s been so wonderful to include her in our holiday meals instead of staring at an empty seat where my dad used to sit,” she says.
Write to Your Person
Ashley Wyman, of Houston, lost her father to brain cancer three years ago. Every year since, she buys him a holiday card, writes an update on her life inside, and encloses it in a binder. “I keep the cards so that when I’m ready, I can look back at my journey and see how much I have grown since he has passed,” she says. Smith encourages developing an expressive practice like writing or creating art. “Keeping up a connection and even an internal dialogue with our lost loved ones is vital to a healthy grief process,” she says.
Ask for Help
If you’re experiencing recurring thoughts that feel unmanageable—you can’t stop envisioning morbid or illness-related images, you’re becoming paranoid, or you’re considering harming yourself or others—talk to your doctor about getting help. Even if things don’t feel dire, you might find it comforting to speak with a therapist, especially if your friends are focused on merrier matters. (Grief can be awkward to broach with even the closest friends.) There’s also virtual support at your fingertips. Join the Modern Loss closed Facebook group or the Option B Coping with Grief one. The best part of these resources: They’re available 24/7.
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