A few years ago, my father passed away just before Thanksgiving. That holiday season passed in a blur.
A strange swirl of questions went through my mind: Should my family still celebrate Christmas while in throes of handling our loss? Do we leave his seat empty at the table? Do I still bother making his favorite hors d’oeuvre, the labor-intensive and otherwise unloved caviar pie?
And what if one or all of us gets overwhelmed by emotion, and “comfort and joy” turns into “comfort and Kleenex” by the tree?
Then there were well-intentioned friends, who either gave me a wide berth (aka ignoring me) or admonished me to “keep it together,” as if any show of raw emotion would be ruinous.
If you’ve recently lost a family member, you may be wondering: Do you sit out the season—or soldier on and make merry, since it’s what the deceased likely would have wanted you to do?
Why holidays are so hard
“The holidays are centering moments in our lives,” says Ken Doka, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the College of New Rochelle, consultant at the Hospice Foundation of America, and author of Grief is a Journey. “And they’re about getting together with loved ones, so we feel out of sync with people when we are coping with grief.”
Anne (last name withheld), 59, of Albany, N.Y., had a difficult first holidays after the loss of her mother, who had a prolonged battle with cancer. “While I knew her death was coming for years, when she finally passed, I was devastated. I’d get choked up a dozen times a day,” she says.
“My husband kept saying, ‘You’ve got to keep it together for the sake of the family,’ and I know he meant well, but that pressure was painful—the demand that I not show emotion. I felt as if I couldn’t even share stories about my mother, otherwise I’d be a big downer.”
The holidays also tend to trigger memories, says Doka, and that makes the absence of a key player even more acute. “There’s the year the oven broke down, those times of putting together toys…the reminiscing makes it even harder.”
The dangers of denial
In order to cope, some people try utter avoidance.
Dr. Doka recalls one client who lost his wife before the holiday season and decided he just couldn’t deal. “He wrote a check to his kids, told them to celebrate however they wanted, and headed south to escape. It was a disaster.”
Ultimately, ignoring the loss is fruitless, Doka says. “It’s not the same. An important person isn’t there. The season now and in the future will have a bittersweet quality.”
Anne, on the other hand, tried to put on a brave face for her family. “I put on a smile but spent a lot of time sobbing in the shower. It was the only safe place to let out my real feelings,” she says.
How to manage the memories
First, recognize that this is going to be a different kind of holiday.
“Accept the fact that you are going to be triggered. Grief is painful, but it’s also the form love takes when someone dies,” says Dr. Katherine Shear, director of the Center for Complicated Grief and professor of psychiatry at the Columbia School of Social Work in New York City.
Try creating small rituals to embrace what Dr. Doka calls the “presence of the loved one’s absence.” For example, making a toast, or lighting a candle in honor of the person.
It’s okay to decline to participate in the whirl of parties, festivities and outings. It’s even okay to reply to an invitation with “I’d like to see how I’m feeling closer to that day,” or to just turn up for dessert if that’s what feels right.
And remind yourself of the duality of this moment in your life —the joy mixed with sorrow, togetherness and grief. “Expect this to be a period with emotional pain and also allow yourself to enjoy it,” says Shear.
I found solace in creating memories in the aftermath of my father’s passing. Around the holiday dinner table, we reminisced about my dad by looking at photos of him, remembering the charming cards he drew for us with colored pencils—and recalling how impossible he was to shop for (his holiday list tended to rely heavily on obscure, out-of-print books).
As we spoke, his imprint upon us—and the holiday—felt alive, strong and meaningful.