Paint Your Holiday the Way You Want it to Be (the Norman Rockwell way)

Shirley’s husband of 42 years died suddenly this spring of a heart condition. Brittany’s husband served in the U.S. Army in Iraq for the past 9 months. This was supposed to be their first Christmas together, but he won’t be home. Martha is homebound and lives in an assisted living facility; her family is hundreds of miles away. Stuart’s son died; everyone asks how his wife is doing, but no one asks how he is feeling. Shelley was recently divorced and lives with her mother, again.

There is a myth that holiday grief affects only those who have lost a loved one. The truth is holiday grief and anxiety affects many people—all experiencing different life changing situations that challenge them to find a reason for the season. Throughout our lives, holiday celebrations change; and they probably aren’t going to be what they used to be.

Perhaps, you remember the paintings and covers of the Saturday Evening Post during the 50’s and 60’s? Norman Rockwell’s pictures always told a story.  His pictures portrayed American life and values. People rushed to the newsstands to buy the prestigious magazine and find rapture in the scenes he illustrated. His era with Post ended in 1963, but his masterpieces continued to tell the stories of life the way it used to be.

In our lives today, whether or not we grew up in Norman Rockwell times, we build visual images worthy of the Norman Rockwell collection of holiday paintings.  In our minds, we remember the “ideal” holiday event and the positive emotions surrounding it. Rockwell’s holiday themes depict a vivacious, spunky Santa full of surprises; frolicking children, and perfect families enjoying typical family gatherings; festive meals;  building snowmen; and chasing the postman. Everything in his pictures is perfect. Rockwell once said, “I paint life as I’d like it to be.”

We are influenced by the great images of artists such as Rockwell. If only life could always be “as we would like it to be.” Unfortunately, the realities of life are sometimes harsh. We try to avoid them by misinterpreting the truths and creating a mythical sense of euphoria. We struggle through the daze of holiday grief and give in to myths that complicate our already clouded view of the coming holidays. Grief and holidays come burdened with many myths.

What is a myth?
A myth is a story or something that is not true and may be handed down from generation to generation, like a legend. It is often a fabricated story or fact that cannot be validated. A myth, however, is something very easy to believe—because we want to believe it.

Grief from loss makes us vulnerable to many myths. Things aren’t always what they seem. Our beliefs and attitudes are very powerful forces in our lives. We have a perception of what the holiday should be like based on past holidays and “ideal” holidays.  Often, our perception of the holiday may be a myth. We believe that everything has to be perfect or the holiday is not worth celebrating.

What kind of holiday do you picture this year? Is it a season filled with doom and gloom or can you step aside from your grief and create a Norman Rockwell kind-of holiday in which everything is nearly perfect? Or, at least, a holiday that is the best that it can be.

It’s possible to change the myths and create new realities that will allow you to step through the season with grace and sanity, in your control. Here are a few ideas of how to expose these myths and replace them with a new reality.

 Myth:  Holiday grief begins around Christmas Eve Day and ends right after New Years Day or when the decorations come down.
Truth:  Holidays may begin earlier for some people.  In fact holidays may begin as early as Halloween. Around our house, the holidays began right before the deer hunting season. Typically we were experiencing first snow and the men would begin celebrating the “spirit” of deer hunting  while the women began building the “spirit of the season” by shopping. This was the tradition.

After our son, Chad, died, the tradition lost its glow. The harsh reality was—hunting wasn’t as exciting as it used to be, and Chad wasn’t going. Some friends gave us a DVD of Chad at one of his last hunting parties at the shack. It had been 14 years since his death. The DVD laid on our table, because we were both so fearful of seeing his image and experiencing the raw loss again. Finally, we played the DVD and experienced tears of great joy (and sadness) we witnessed the spirit of our beautiful son who loved to “clown around”, dance, and hang out with the guys. It was a “good” cry.

The holidays still begin around hunting season for us, but it’s not about hunting any more. My husband, Gary, gave up hunting, but I didn’t give up shopping. Our focus wasn’t around Christmas and gifts, but rather about helping others with grief and enjoying ongoing relationships with family and friends.

So how do you dissolve the myth and create a manageable holiday? Plot out a time frame for your holiday season…whether it is a week, a couple of days or however long you think the “hard” times will be. Create a signal for yourself that tells you when that period of time is over. For us, the queue is taking down the Christmas tree. It’s our sign of relief that the holiday is over and we can go back to routine.

Prepare for the uncomfortable moments and the thoughtless questions and remarks. You are going to get them. In your mind, determine how you will answer and stick with your rehearsed answers. Plan an escape. If you are in a “captured” setting, drive your own car. Or have an excuse when you wish to leave. You determine when.

I could picture Norman Rockwell illustrating this scene in today’s world. I see a “get-away” car parked conveniently at the curb with the motor running when Uncle Jack pats you on the back and says, “You’re strong. Keep a stiff upper lip.”

Myth:  At gatherings, it is inappropriate to mention fond memories of our loved that died. It makes others feel uncomfortable.
Truth:  Holidays are a time for reflection. Remembering our loved one is essential to our good health and healing. Stories and memories will be with us for our lifetimes and are the one true source of pleasure.

Create a safe environment and remember out loud. Say his or her name and chuckle at the rich stories of life. Shed a tear and follow it up with silently saying, “I still love you.” Teach others that love lasts forever; that you need to remember; and this is your reality for handling grief.

I could picture Norman Rockwell illustrating the scene today. The family may be gathered around a loose-bound, well-illustrated collection using the hottest scrapbooking skills. It’s a volume of endless pictures that tell a life story through stamping techniques, assorted mementos, anecdotes and written interpretation of a particular event or day. A memory candle burns softly on the same table. Family and friends of all ages share the experience with mixed expressions:  smiles, tears, chuckles, finger-pointing, and hugs.

Myth:  Traditions are something you do year-after-year, and they aren’t meant to be changed.
Truth: Just because we always did it that way doesn’t mean we can’t infuse our celebration with new ideas that fit into this generation of living and the present moment.

Every family goes through lifestyle changes-and those changes affect how traditions continue or are discontinued. Kids move away and go to college. Parents become “empty nesters” and “snowbirds.” Teen-agers want to spend more time with their friends rather than with relatives on a holiday. Elderly parents don’t want to cook; so, they may opt for dinner out.

At some point, we seem to outgrow traditions like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Maybe a death in the family is one of these times that means “let’s try something new.”

So how do you dissolve this myth and create a manageable holiday?  Be open-minded. Reflect on past changes in other families as well as your own. If traditions bring unhappy memories, change them. Don’t be a puppet and let others tell you how to spend your day. There are no set rules. Create a family contest on who can come up with the best “new” tradition. It’s admirable to take pride in the traditions that work.

I can picture Norman Rockwell illustrating this scene today with a Christmas tree glowing in LED lights of red, blue, orange and fuchsia pink and grandma and grandpa engaged in a rousing game of WII bowling on the large screen LED television. (Bet they beat the grandkids!)

 Myth:  When the second holiday season comes around, I will be over my grief and can return to the old traditions.
Truth:  The second holiday may feel just as sad as the first. And for many, returning to the past holiday traditions is no longer desirable.

The second holiday season for us wasn’t as easy as I originally thought it might be. But because we changed the traditions during the first holiday season, it was easier to accept that the change was good, and we wanted to do it that way again.

Remember grief is a process and that requires a different amount of time for healing for each of us. Don’t hurry the process. If the second holiday is still a bit painful, you can try for the third—and in the meantime work at removing the barriers between peace and past. Holidays will always lack some of the precious moments of past years, but that doesn’t mean holidays can’t be good.

A real positive influence in dissolving holiday grief is “giving to someone else.” Giving—meaning not gifts, but time and of yourself. There are so many people with needs in every community. Volunteer at charity events. Ring a bell for the Salvation Army. Pick a gift name off the Tree of Giving. Do something for someone that “feels good.”

I can picture Norman Rockwell illustrating this life change by sketching a bereaved mom and dad serving meals in the big kitchen at a local shelter or gently consoling someone less fortunate with a loving hand on their shoulder.  A church bell gently tolls outside the window while delicate snowflakes filter through the streetlight. A bright star—the star of HOPE shines magnificently in the distance.

Hope is an attitude of the spirit, and energy for the soul. It challenges myths and creates new realities. Norman Rockwell’s illustrations in the current time might clearly be very different than they used to be. His gift would depict human values that show deep sensitivity to life’s pain.  While he showed “life the way I want it to be”, new illustrations could witness to the testimonies of triumph over grief—and life “the way it is.” This year be like Norman Rockwell, create a new canvas. Paint your holiday the way you want it to be.

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Nan Zastrow

More Articles Written by Nan

“I always wanted to write,” said Nan Zastrow. “But I never dreamed it would be about death, grief, and mourning. Today I write to heal my pain and teach others that even after a life-changing event, there can be a reason and a purpose to go on living.” On April 16, 1993, Chad Zastrow, the son of Nan and Gary, died as the result of suicide. Ten weeks later, Chad’s fiancée took her life. This double tragedy inspired the Zastrows to create a ministry of hope. They formed a non-profit organization called ©Roots and Wings more commonly called Wings. From 1993—2003, they published the Wings™ magazine, a publication about real situations and real people going through grief that was mailed throughout the United States and Canada. In 2003, their non-profit changed its focus to primarily grief education and support. They publish a free, quarterly newsletter by email to subscribers. Nan and Gary, together, have been keynote speakers at National Bereaved Parents and workshop presenters at various other events. They have been grief group facilitators since 1993, and host workshops and seminars. Each year they host an original theme-based community “When the Holidays Hurt” program for area funeral homes. Nan is the author of a four books and over sixty Editor’s Journal Articles in Wings, Grief Digest, and other publications. Their non-profit organization is the recipient of the 2000 Flame of Freedom Award for community volunteerism. Nan was also nominated for the Women of Vision Award in 2001; the Athena Award in 2005, and The HOPE of Wisconsin, hospice volunteer of the year in 2008. Nan and Gary are hospice volunteers and survivors of six sudden deaths of significant people in their lives. Reach Nan through the website, http://www.wingsgrief.org.

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