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Making the Holidays Meaningful in the Midst of Loss and Grief

Whether it’s the first Christmas after bereavement, or even If many years have passed, this can be one of the most difficult times of the year.

Andy Williams famously sang the beloved Christmas song, “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” As a youngster, when I heard the tune playing on my parents’ stereo, it served as an unofficial announcement that we had entered the holiday season.

But for those who have experienced a significant loss — especially if it is recent, unexpected, or traumatic — such words may feel muted or hollow, even irritating. Some people may not be most concerned with how to celebrate the season as much as they are with debating whether to observe it at all.

Loss and grief challenge our emotional norms and strike at dissonant chords within us. It is typically marked by conflicting emotions that result from changes in familiar rhythms, patterns, routines, and presence of the one missing. As poet Edna St. Vincent Millay so poignantly wrote in 1931, “The presence of that absence is everywhere.”

Of course bereavement is not always limited to loss as a result of death. There are many other reasons why one might not be in the mood to feel merry this Christmas, such as loved ones dealing with significant illness, or a close relative who is being devastated by the ravages of dementia, the loss of a job. And the ongoing pandemic has left many people separated from family members with whom they wish to celebrate.

If you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one this Christmas, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. There are steps you can take to make this season a bit more bearable — even meaningful — despite it not being what you hoped.

While each person’s grief experience is unique, one commonality is that things don’t feel the same. Some sorrow in grief is unavoidable. Loving someone wholeheartedly requires the kind of vulnerability that leaves you susceptible to emotional pain when he or she is no longer part of your life. Thankfully, the joys of relationship with loved ones usually have enriched our lives in a manner that exceeds the pain of the loss. This is why we are willing to make that investment in the first place.

Nonetheless, there are times people unnecessarily endure suffering due to their rigid expectations about the way and how long they should grieve. Some impatiently chide themselves for still feeling distress a few months following the loss — even though it is common for a grief episode to go on for 18 months to two years before being fully resolved. Others fear that if they stop feeling bad too soon, it is a sign that they really didn’t love that person as deeply as they thought.

It is helpful for people to let their grief process be what it needs to be. By being kind and patient with themselves, they will create a gentler path through their grief process.

Unrealistic expectations frequently apply to the Christmas season as well. Too often, people stumble into the holidays after a death believing circumstances should remain exactly as before. They tell themselves if they try hard enough to be positive and maintain old traditions, they can will themselves and other family members to not feel the loss. Such an expectation only results in crashing to earth when an inevitable moment of sadness or awareness of the missing presence of the loved one occurs.

On the other hand, the notion of “canceling Christmas” — however tempting that may seem —isn’t necessarily a good option either. That’s especially the case for those who have caring responsibilities, who may feel obliged to observe Christmas in some way. It often is best to hold a scaled-down version of the usual Christmas celebration.

When we are in a period of greater-than-usual stress, good self-care is vitally important. The more predictability you can give yourself, the better you will tolerate the increased demand on your coping reserves. Try to set as consistent a schedule as possible with respect to eating and sleeping. Even though there typically are lots of temptations with sugary concoctions during this season, try to keep your junk food intake at a minimum. Also, it doesn’t hurt to do some regular moderate exercise such as walking as a way of reducing your body’s stress response.

Scale back the amount of energy you invest in holiday trappings. This is not the time to traipse through crowded stores on long shopping jaunts looking for that elusive perfect gift. Too much emphasis on the material aspects of Christmas may make it seem shallower and emptier than it already feels.

Be selective in the number of social invitations you accept. Don’t be pressured into feeling obligated to do anything.

Use space that you have created to intentionally lean into your faith and find strength and comfort resting in God’s presence and reading His word. Take time to think about what Jesus entering into our world to be our Savior really means to you.

While you should be choosy about what social gatherings you attend, this is not the time to go into seclusion from others, even though you may feel like hiding away until the season is over.

Research on grieving indicates that mourning is best worked through in the presence of “caring others,” not in isolation. Identify some individuals in your life with whom you feel comfortable — those in your corner and people you can talk to about what has happened and your relationship with the person who died.

People who are safe will give you permission to be honest about how you’re feeling, will validate your experience, and will not try to “fix” you or demand you be something or somewhere other than where you currently are. Give yourself permission to accept offers of help and comfort from others.

This may involve doing something completely new or different that lessens the sense of loss or honors the loved one in a memorable way. For those with this inclination, Eleanor Haley’s column “16 Ideas for Creating New Holiday Tradition After a Death” is a great resource with some thoughtful and creative notions.

Other individuals may not be ready to set aside cherished traditions that have a connection with their family member, such as listening to a particular piece of Christmas music or watching a favorite movie, like Frank Capra's It’s A Wonderful Life. Maintaining that as a part of their Christmas observance keeps them connected to their loved one. There is no single, cookie-cutter approach that is right for everyone.

The first Christmas following the death of my father-in-law, all family members gathered and took turns sharing a prized memory about him. I still recall that moment to this day with great delight, despite the sadness that he no longer was physically present with us.

It is wise to anticipate and accept that in this first Christmas season things will feel less than ideal and possibly even very difficult in moments. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself the time and space to grieve. It is probable that by Christmas 2021 you will look back with God’s grace and better able to embrace the wonder of Christmas.

Rick Serbin is a licensed psychologist on the staff of Emerge Counseling Ministries in Akron, Ohio. Contact Emerge at emerge.org or at 800-621-5207.