Facing the Holidays When You’ve Lost a Loved One

If you have recently lost a loved one with whom you would otherwise be sharing this holiday season, you might be finding yourself wanting to burrow under your covers with a box of tissues until the holidays have passed. If this sounds like you, it’s time for some T.L.C. I don’t believe we should ever push down our emotions, though social conventions might make it advisable to develop strategies for dealing with these challenges privately or having a dear and trusted friend bear witness to what we are feeling. Remember that even at their best, holidays can be stressful. So, make taking thoughtful and loving care of yourself your number-one priority for the holidays.

Until 2006, I spent every Christmas except one with my mother. We shared a home for the last nine years of her life. For the past four Christmases, I have been adrift, unable to decorate my house for the holidays and spending Christmas like a peripheral, orphaned outsider to other people’s ways of spending the holiday. This year, I am finally ready to create Christmas on my own terms — just for me.

I have worked hard to develop the ability to pay attention to my own truth, and this year I am ready to give myself a beautiful Christmas. I am profoundly aware of the fact that part of not having my own Christmas these past four years has been because I was telling myself it didn’t matter because I had no one to make a fuss over. Then I had the tearful realization that I really need to make a fuss over myself this year. So, I am joyfully decorating my house with garlands, lights, wreaths, candles, angels and stars and plan to get a real Christmas tree, hoping that it survives my cats’ first Christmas. I am buying myself lots of presents, too, and signing the tags from all different people who have loved me and enriched my life. My heart is full and open again, and it simply took as long as it took.

Here are my suggestions for how to honor your own process of regaining an inner balance with the holidays.

1. Pay attention and be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you feel and what you need to do and not do as you move through this holiday season. Whether you have other people to coordinate your plans with or are facing the holidays alone, be as true to yourself as possible. Others may try to include you in their plans, or they may not, but it is really up to you to figure out what would be best for you. If you feel like sitting home in your pajamas sipping hot chocolate and crying or nibbling on cold pizza crust from the night before, that’s OK. If you feel happy and want to joyfully participate in the holidays — that’s OK, too. Don’t judge your truth, just live it and trust your own inner wisdom to carry you through.

2. Be patient, kind and compassionate with yourself about what is true for you. There are no set rules about how to face the holidays carrying the loss of a loved one. This is a very personal matter. For many of us, the holidays trigger memories of thoughts, feelings, tastes, smells, rituals and traditions shared with our loved one. Without this person, the holidays may feel hollow and meaningless. If possible, reach for the deeper meaning of these holy days and the privilege of having shared them with someone you loved. Sometimes we take that for granted until we lose it. So, if your loss feels overwhelming, consider transforming it into gratitude for the blessing of having had this person in your life who touched you so deeply.

3. Take loving care of yourself. Grief takes many forms. You might find yourself lethargic or grumpy or somehow out of sorts. That’s OK. Just stay focused on what is happening inside you and tend to yourself as you would to anyone else you love deeply. Love yourself deeply through this time.

4. Anticipate and plan ahead. Don’t wait for others to make plans for you that may or may not have anything at all to do with what you really need. Face your truth and communicate what you need this year to those with whom you would otherwise be spending the holidays. If you have no one, consider new options like volunteering in your community, spending a quiet holiday by yourself or asking someone to include you in part of their festivities. You might even take a trip to either avoid the whole experience or to immerse yourself in another culture’s interpretation of the holidays.

5. Make room for your grief or sadness. Grief is a very private matter, and the holidays have a way of magnifying it. Welcome your grief. Your sadness and tears are expressions of the healing process of letting go and moving forward into your life without your loved one. If you try to postpone or ignore your grief, it will find other ways to manifest and demand your attention. So, be open to your grieving and trust that it is healing.

6. If appropriate, create a new ritual to honor the memory of your deceased loved one as you celebrate the holidays. My mother and I decorated shoe boxes that we put under the Christmas tree. Each of us would take time to write little messages of love and appreciation for the other, put them in each other’s box and then read them on Christmas morning. I am immersing myself in our love this Christmas by rereading our messages and adding new notes of appreciation for my mother’s love. By putting the names of people who have loved me on the tags of all the presents I have bought myself, I am also remembering them and surrounding myself with their love this Christmas.

7. Remember that the holidays will pass. Chances are they will present challenges. Rise to the occasion and take good care of your sweet self.

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Judith Johnson

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Judith Johnson, PhD is a dynamic visionary and social change agent committed to transforming the fear-based culture of death in America. She has an interdisciplinary background in strategic planning, education, and practical spirituality and holds doctoral degrees in Social Psychology and Spiritual Science, a Masters Degree in Business and over twenty years working with corporate and entrepreneurial ventures. As a non-denominational minister Judith provides grief counseling, and officiates at memorial services. Her passion for facilitating change in the culture of death was fueled by a nine year journey as primary caregiver to her mother. Judith, a published author, writes regularly about death, bereavement and human consciousness on the Huffington Post. She is currently writing a book on breaking free of our social taboo around death. Along with Laurie Schwartz, an early leader of the Hospice movement in the United States, Judith co-founded Having It Your Way, a creative collaboration designed to educate and motivate individuals and organizations to live from a place of profound authenticity. As consultants, she and Laurie assist organizations in evolving their response to the needs of the dying and grieving among their employees and the community they serve. As coaches, they empower individuals to achieve greater peace of mind by clarifying personal values and preferences regarding the end of life; communicating wishes to loved ones and doctors; and making plans in advance of need as a gift to themselves and to those they will one day leave behind. Through media projects, consulting services, public speaking, seminars, and writing they educate, inspire, and facilitate the process of transforming the paradigm of death in our culture. Their mission is to shift the public’s perspective on dying, death , and bereavement from anxiety to equanimity, thus creating a more compassionate society.

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