Holidays: A Survival Guide

As if each ordinary day isn't difficult and painful enough for the bereaved to survive, along comes the holiday season with its warmth and good cheer and its traditions and customs of family togetherness. The holidays can bring a stinging reminder of what once was but never will be again.

by Susan Arlen, M.D.

As if each ordinary day isn’t difficult and painful enough for the bereaved to survive, along comes the holiday season with its warmth and good cheer and its traditions and customs of family togetherness. The holidays can bring a stinging reminder of what once was but never will be again.

Often our childhood memories of the holidays somehow seem more festive, warmer, more complete, more ideal—indeed, more everything—than those of today. In memory, even the snow was deeper and whiter and purer than it is in the reality of today. 

Have the holidays actually changed, or has society in its push toward progress and future altered our perceptions? Two generations ago, most Americans spent their entire lives within a ten-mile radius of their birthplace. Then, it was taken for granted that family and friends would always be there to share in all-important occasions, both happy and sad.

Our “progress” has caused us to become a fractured nation with families divided and split—one member may live in Maryland, on in Chicago and another in Memphis. Now, when we want or need to “reach out and touch someone”, we must either use the phone lines or board a plane.

A beautiful gift sent across the miles is a delight to receive—a message that someone cares. But given the choice, most people would forego the gift and opt instead for the presence of their loved one.

The bereaved, however, do not have this choice. The bereaved cannot even anticipate a phone call. The holidays have become something for them to dread. The gaiety seen in public places has become an affront and a source of increased distress for them. Their sense of despair and of being out of step with the rest of the world is intensified. 

One of the issues expressed time and again is the dissonance that they perceive between their sorrow, loss and yearning and the incongruity that the rest of the world appears to continue along without missing a beat. The very sight of happy people rushing around looking for the perfect decoration or gift or party dress exacerbates the bleakness so often felt.

Holidays are family times, times of togetherness, closeness, tradition and ritual. How can bereaved families hope to survive the holiday season when the person that they loved, the one who gave meaning to the celebration, will not be there?

Can one celebrate thanks at Thanksgiving? Can one celebrate Christmas or Chanukah with the anticipation of joy, good cheer and children’s excited faces? Can one welcome the New Year with its promise of fresh starts and clean slates when all one really wishes to do is recapture precious times past? Can times of wholeness, when loved ones were present, ever be recovered? All memories seem to be centered on sharing the joys and the prayers of those days when “looking forward” meant the happy anticipation of looking forward to being together.

How cruel and painful the holiday season can become! Each sight, each smell conjures up thoughts of what once was. The bereaved have survived the beauty of summer with its lovely weather and family outings and autumn's return to schedules and school buses. Those times that recalled simple every-day-ness were painful enough. Then, suddenly as if out of nowhere, the holidays rapidly bear down, bringing into clear focus the differences between bereaved families and the rest of the world. 

One day or even one moment at a time has been difficult enough. Energies for even simple tasks that occurred during times of small expectations have been depleted. Now, traditions that were once savored and anticipated are feared, ritual is often dreaded, gaiety becomes an affront.

A Survival Guide for the Holidays
Recognize the possible sources of discomfort, try to anticipate even the smallest part that might elicit pain, and then decide what can or cannot be faced, altered or eliminated.

Acknowledge that this year will be different. Eliminate whatever you need to. There is nothing you must do. Grief depletes energy. Because of this lessened energy, the simplest of tasks may loom large and insurmountable. How can you face dinners and parties when smiling and laughter feel like the twist of a knife in the raw wound of your loss? How can you attend religious services with all of their reminders and implied promises? 

Take care of your own health; guard your own strength and energy. It is OK to say, “no” to invitations. It is difficult to predict your feelings and energy levels, so it’s also OK to change your mind at the last minute about attending dinners, parties and religious services or to leave a function early. You must be your own guide.

Almost every town will display decorations (some of them starting as early as September), and music will be heard on most street corners. People will seem to rush around with purpose. All of this can increase your own feeling of purposelessness, isolation and alienation from what the rest of the world is doing and feeling.

Give yourself permission to change whatever traditions or rituals that you need to change. Nothing is written in stone! Just because something has been done a certain way for twenty years doesn’t mean that it is the only way to do it. Change things if you want to. The option to return to the old traditions will be there next year and the year after.

Change the time, location and/or menu of traditional meals. Or eliminate them altogether this year. Attend religious services at a different time than usual or at another house of worship—or don’t go at all this year. Decorate differently, have someone else decorate, decorate exactly the same as always or don’t decorate at all. Open gifts at a different time than you did before.

Break large tasks into small pieces. Don’t be afraid to delegate tasks to others. Tell friends and relatives what would be helpful to you. They would probably like to help you but don’t know what to do. Tell them as specifically as you can.

Memorialize your loved one in some way that is both important to you and would have meaning for him or her. It needn’t be a large gesture, but it is helpful if it has a unique and personal value.

If you wish to go away for the holidays, do so. This year, you must do what is right for you. Remember, though, that you will take your thoughts and your grief with you.

Find something, some small thing, that is special to you. Do something you have never done before. Give your own life a degree of meaning and value no matter how bereft you are feeling.

All of these suggestions offer the same basic message: There is no right or wrong way for you to do things. There is only your way and that is the correct way for you.

People have often expressed a wish to hibernate from November to January to eliminate the holidays completely. We can mentally ignore the holidays by pretending that they don’t exist, but it takes tremendous effort and energy to deny all of the input we see around us. We can also compound our loss—we have lost a loved one, and we can lose the holiday season as well.  It is important to do something to hold onto the meaning and memories of a life loved and lived as we remember holidays of the past and create new rituals. Remember that implicit in Thanksgiving, Christmas and Chanukah is the miracle of human survival and hope for the future.

Create your own hope for your own future. Give yourself the gift of this miracle. May you find peace this holiday season.

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