The first holiday after a loss


By Shauna Summers
I have had a handful of “first holidays” to be sure. There was the first Thanksgiving after Grandma and Aunt Aileen died - it was the first year we decided to eat game hens for our meal; the first Christmas after Grandpa died on 12/26 the year before - by then we could be happy he got to enjoy one last Christmas; and the holidays after my daughter’s dad (my ex-husband of 6 months) was killed. I’m not sure I processed Christmas that year. We’d been married eight years and divorced for a few months when he was killed in a car accident. My daughter was young and I was in shock. The holidays after my dad moved into a nursing home have been especially hard. The first year it was hard to find the holiday spirit because it wasn’t the same without him in the house.
“First holidays” are especially difficult following the loss of a loved one and we (both the grieving person and the people that care for a grieving person) don’t always know what to do, what to expect, or how to best try to prepare.

As the years go by, the loss tends to become less painful. The memories of those who have passed are laced with humor and nostalgia. The chairs are empty, but the relationships with the people who once occupied them continue on in our shared memories and stories.

The first holiday season following a death feels like a complicated negotiation. The loss seems to be highlighted by the holiday and all that the holidays bring: family, tradition, and tender moments. Those who are grieving don’t know how to get through the first holiday without their loved person and those who care about a grieving person want to be helpful but are equally confused about how to do it. It’s a situation that is poignantly human.

For those who have lost a loved one within the past year, just thinking about the holiday preparations may intensify an entire host of emotions are normal and expected to accompany grief, most typically sadness and anger, but other more complex emotions can sneak in there as well.

For those who care about someon who is grieving, it can be hard to know what to say and not say, what to do and not do, and how best to honor the memory without contributing to pain. Grief counselors generally agree on some basic guidelines that can help you manage a personal loss or help you support those in mourning during the holiday season. Below are some basic guidelines grief counselors generally agree on that can help both the grieving person as well as someone who loves a grieving person (found at The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table):

If you are the grieving person:

  • Allow yourself to grieve. American culture has a tough time with death. For some reason, there is pressure to get on with life within a year after a loss. That expectation is unrealistic and unfair. Most people take three to five years to fully accept the loss of someone they loved. If someone dear to you died during this past year, remind yourself that it’s normal and healthy to want to bow out of some of the events of the winter holidays that emphasize family and togetherness when you are feeling alone in a new and painful way.
  • Take care of yourself. Discipline yourself to get enough sleep, to eat right, and to follow your normal routines – especially if you don’t feel like it. You’ll be better able to make good decisions about what makes sense for you to do over the holiday season.
  • Plan ahead. Do you want to be alone or will being with those who love you ease the pain? Really think about it. Sometimes being alone makes the aloneness much too hard to bear. Sometimes being in a crowd is overwhelming. Only you know what is best for you. Talk to key family members and ask them to support you in whichever decision you make.
  • Rethink hosting the party. If yours is the usual gathering place, think about whether you want to do it this year. Some people like getting lost in the details of planning and managing a dinner for twelve. But if you are one of those who finds it just too hard to make a party when in mourning, know that it’s okay to be “selfish” in times like these and to beg off. People who love you will understand. Those who don’t aren’t worth worrying about. At the very least, ask for help and accept all offers to spread the responsibilities around.
  • Give people permission to share stories. Many people have the idea that the best way to help someone in grief is to avoid talking about the person who has passed. Most of the time, they are mistaken. When we stop talking about someone is when they are really lost to the family. Let people know that as hard as it is that the person is no longer with us, it’s important to remember the good times, to laugh about funny things they did or said, and to acknowledge that he or she is missed.
  • Do things a little differently. For some people, doing the usual traditions and celebrations makes the loved one’s absence all the more painful. Think about whether doing things a bit differently or going to a different place would be helpful.
If you are a family member or friend of someone who is grieving:

  • Allow the person the right to grieve. Everyone does it differently. Some people want to withdraw from the world and work through their sadness alone. At the other end of the spectrum are those who manage by carrying on as usual and tempering the pain through the distraction of people and parties. Carefully consider what your loved one needs, not what you would do in the situation.
  • Take care. If you notice that your family member or friend isn’t eating, getting enough sleep, or functioning well at home and work, don’t ignore it. These are signs that the person is possibly getting clinically depressed. Invite the person to a meal. Talk to her about the importance of maintaining routines. If her inability to take care of herself is prolonged, do what you can to get her to a counselor.
  • Plan ahead. Ask the person in mourning what he wants to have happen at family events. How would he like to acknowledge the loss and at the same time keep the holiday going for everyone? Some families literally set an empty place at the table and take a moment to share anecdotes about the person who has passed away. Others make a toast to the memories. Still others offer a prayer. Talk together about what will feel best for everyone involved.
  • Offer help. If the grieving person is the one who usually hosts family gatherings, see if someone else can offer to do it this year. If she wants to keep up the tradition, get as many family members as possible to help with the shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, and whatever else needs to be done.
  • Talk to the grieving person about the loss. Listen without judgment. Resist giving advice. Just be there. Understand that grief comes and goes in intensity and frequency for quite awhile. It is by talking and listening that we all integrate sadness and gradually move on.
  • Try out a new activity that was never shared by the person who is gone. It’s helpful to do some things that aren’t shadowed by the fact that the last time we did them, the deceased person shared it. If people like the new ideas, they can become part of the family tradition. Or not. Leave that decision for next year.

Time can heal. It is important to remember that what heals in 9 months for Person A may take 5 years in Person B, and that is okay because both are normal.
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, give yourself permission to grieve and to feel whatever you feel. Finding ways to honor the memory of your loved one and to accept the support and love of those who love you will help you get through this especially challenging holiday season.

If you love someone who is grieving, give them support, love, and concrete assistance (not, “Let me know what I can do.”). Be open to talking about their loved one with them and be open to listening to their stories, memories, and feelings. You may be one of the few who is willing to walk that path of healing with them. Reassure them that the overwhelming sadness may fade but our relationships with people we love never really end.