Special events, occasions and holidays can be extremely difficult to cope with when you have lost someone you love. For me, where there used to be anticipation and joy, all these special days throughout the calendar year now seem like landmines of loss, grief and sadness.
There are your personal celebration days like her birthday, your anniversary, your birthday, your kid’s birthdays. Then there are the shared holidays like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day, not to mention Mothers and Fathers Day.
There were already heightened holiday expectations before the loss. And now, extreme anxiety ahead of each special occasion, and a hunkered down survival just to get through each of these days.
Why was this so difficult for me? First, there were so many things my lovely bride Judy used to take care of for each of these celebrations – the presents, wrapping, baskets, cakes, favorite meals and traditions. Then, there is the absence, like an echo in a vast canyon.
As each of these occasions ticked off since Judy’s passing, I’ve learned much about experiencing the void, trying to create new celebration traditions, and definitely learning how to not get it right. The good news, finally, after four and a half years, I might have finally gotten one of these special occasions right.
Here are seven tips I’ve learned along the way to make surviving your next special day a little easier and more successful:
1) Don’t be afraid to express your sadness and grief
I pride myself on being stoic, showing my kids how to cope with issues by being strong, a rock so they know that everything will be alright.
Of course I was as sad as the rest of the family that Judy wasn’t going to be with us to prepare her wonderful Christmas Eve celebration dinner, the feast of the seven fishes in Italian tradition (not bad for a German girl), Sad that she wasn’t there to wrap the gifts last minute until 3am on the eve (something that would drive me crazy at the time, but I dearly missed now that she was gone), or there to watch the girls tear into the gifts, and always making sure that I had something special to open too.
But there I was, holiday after holiday not expressing my own grief, holding it in. This wasn’t good for me, as often I would be triggered and lose it in private (See Amygdala Hijack)
Worse, the girls would think I didn’t care … that I wasn’t feeling the same sadness they were experiencing. Having a family hug and cry out right off would have helped everyone, so that my daughters would know I was feeling the absence and sadness too, rather than just putting on my stoic mask. Your friends and family want you, the authentic you – happy, sad, grieving – regardless.
So, from my hard won lessons, don’t be afraid to express yourself in sadness and in grief. If you are sad and need to cry, do it. In fact, grab your loved ones and have a shared moment of grief together, to get it out in love and support.
2) Don’t feel forced to celebrate
Special days often come with special gatherings and expectations for you to attend parties and gatherings . You may not be feeling much like celebrating, and this is OK. Give yourself some grace and don’t be afraid to admit that you aren’t up for the occasion. Your friends and family should understand as you set boundaries around what you are ready for, or not.
We had a great group of family friends we would spend most special occasions with, and they loved to gather for shared meals and gatherings ahead of most special days. These friends could be very persistent about their invitations, and there were times I was glad they were … getting me out of a holiday rut and out and about was just what I needed. However, there were other holidays where I didn’t want to participate. Where I would recall the absence of Judy in the last time we hung out. And on these occasions, saying no was not only OK, but what I needed to do.
Give yourself grace and set the boundaries you need to so you aren’t forced to a gathering or celebration you don’t want to be at.
3) Address the absence, don’t ignore it
I was in California, visiting my girls at College for the long Thanksgiving weekend, instead of flying them all the way home to Florida. We were having an amazing trip with some wonderful hikes and together-time. I prepared to have us pick up food early Thanksgiving day, a feast from a local farm to table favorite, and for us to enjoy the meal at my daughters townhouse.
The day started off with tension over a picture social post, power being off at the townhouse from high winds, and spiraled down from there – Yes, from some of the normal issues encountered, but more because all of us felt Judy’s absence, and NO ONE would discuss it. I took a run into the mountains, the girls sulked around the house, and despite us being together, in the paradise that is Malibu, we had one of our worst Thanksgiving celebrations ever. We couldn’t get through the meal and the day quickly enough.
The next day, we took a road trip down to Laguna Beach, and we had an absolutely amazing family day. Looking at the week – stellar day before Thanksgiving, even better day after … and the holiday, one of the worst, despite the preparations and environment.
Our issue, and one that has plagued other special occasions, we didn’t address the absence proactively. We all felt her not being there, but didn’t talk about it … like if we didn’t mention the fact that she wasn’t there with us anymore, that somehow not be true. And so we let petty issues get away from us, and mar a wonderful day of thanks.
Instead, we should have mentioned to each other just how we wish Mom was there with us. How she would have loved having a break from slaving in the kitchen, and how she would be dealing much better with the power being out than we were. We could have shared our favorite dishes she made, or favorite memories from Thanksgiving’s past – like our Macy’s Day Parade trip and Rosie’s Mexican on the East side instead of Turkey dinner.
Ignoring the absence is a sure way for it to become front and center, so it should be addressed if not embraced. One of the best ways is to share the happy times and memories as part of the celebration, taking time out to remember what they did to make the occasion special in the past, to bring those memories forward to today.
4) Carry on with old traditions
Every Christmas breakfast, Judy would cook up a family favorite – Challah French Toast. She would grab special bread from a local bakery, and despite being exhausted from wrapping gifts into the wee of the morning, after the stockings were ransacked and as I would be helping the kids out together and set up their gifts, she would serve up some welcome comfort food as the exclamation point to our holiday celebration.
For several Christmases since, I’ve made sure the girls could have a similar experience, making sure to pick up the same bread, from the same place, and either I or they would cook it up for the family, in memory.
If you went away somewhere special, went out for a special meal, celebrated a specific way, be sure to carry on with the old traditions as they can provide comfort in the familiar.
5) Create new traditions
Along with celebrating the old traditions, it is important to establish some new ones moving forward.
For this past Christmas, I desperately needed to create a new tradition, instead of just carrying on with the old. So at a friend’s suggestion, I prepared customized ornaments using an on-line resource for each of the girls, each with special pictures of them with Mom. And as a new tradition, the girls opened each as a gift, and then placed the ornaments on the tree.
The new tradition could be something big, like a special trip to get away to a new traditional location for the holiday, or something small and personal, a particular restaurant, visit or gift of honor and remembrance like the ornaments.
6) Reach out for help if you need it
Being alone in your grief is what may be needed from time to time, but we are social creatures who often need conversation and a hug for healing. Instead of suffering alone leading up to and preparing for the special day, or struggling to get through the day with your own plans, you likely have friends, family and a partner who would be more than happy to help.
My attitude, asking for help definitely doesn’t come easy for me. I’m smart, strong and successful, and I can handle and fix everything on my own. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Instead, discuss how you are feeling and share your anxiety with your friends and family, who may be feeling the same. And ultimately you can rely on Him for help and support, surrendering your anxiety, angst and sadness.
We had just celebrated my daughter’s graduation commencement at Pepperdine University, and were blessed enough to take a congratulations trip to Hawaii. The trip was going really well, but looming on the calendar, Mother’s Day, an occasion that particularly highlighted the absence and loss. I was planning our days with my girls up until this point, trying to fill each day with enough adventure balanced with downtime to make each day new and special. For Mother’s Day, I needed help to make it through the day, and so I turned over the day’s agenda to the girls – get with the concierge for advice, and plan out an incredible adventure day for us – from the crack of dawn into the evening. I wanted to make sure we were doing exactly what they wanted to do, were busy, and felt in control on this special day. And what a day they planned – a dozen or so stops and hikes as we made our way from the South end of Kauai to the North – waterfalls, vistas, swimming holes and cliff diving, and along the way we embraced Mom as being with us – shepherding us along to the next highlight and telling stories along the way. Instead of another rough special occasion, both girls exclaimed that this was the best day of their lives!
7) Give back to heal yourself
For me, there is nothing better to aid in my own healing than giving to others.
There are many special occasions, like Thanksgiving and Christmas where volunteer and charity organizations need your hands and your help. What a better reminder as to your own blessings than serving those without a home and regular meals, or volunteering as a steward for a Turkey Trot or Valentine’s Day running event.
And this same perspective that volunteerism has given to you, can be instilled in your children, so look for volunteer and charity events you can participate in as a family, making this perhaps a new tradition.
Checkout this perspective on Father’s Day losses – https://growththroughgrief.org/fathers-day-reflection/