For many, welcoming in the New Year is a celebration of optimism and hope. Many see it as a fresh start and a chance to take steps to improve both their lives and perhaps themselves. Of course, this isn’t a view shared by all. For the newly bereaved, the New Year can be an incredibly painful milestone.
Thinking back to the first New Year after the death of my daughter four years ago, I was blindsided by how painful it was for me. She died on September 30, so I had been preoccupied with overwhelming anxiety over how I was going to handle Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. What would I do? What wouldn’t I do? What if I broke down or had a panic attack on a day that was supposed to be a celebration?
Since I had never been much of a participant in New Year’s Eve festivities, it didn’t even occur to me that the New Year holiday would be a big deal. But in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I began to realize I was actually dreading it. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that a new year was coming and my daughter wouldn’t be alive in it. I wanted time to stop. I actually got angry about it. There would be no resolutions. No hope. No optimism. All I saw was more impossible pain on the horizon.
Some of you reading this may feel the same despair I did four years ago. The idea that anything good can ever happen again may feel impossible. The mere idea of smiling, laughing, and enjoying life may feel like a betrayal of your loved one. And if you feel that way, it’s ok – it is a normal reaction to grief.
Only when you feel you are ready, I encourage you to give yourself permission to look for hope again. Perhaps it is like a New Year’s resolution. But unlike most resolutions that are doomed from the start because they are too ambitious and too vague, I suggest you set specific, very small goals with the aim of re-learning basic every day habits – but this time with a new perspective.
In the case of resolutions, most people fail because they try to take on too much at once and don’t have the willpower to change the habits that serve as barriers to their goals. I learned this idea after reading an article called “How Simple Mini Habits Can Change Your Life” by Stephen Guise on the Tiny Buddha website. The basic idea of the article is that you can change your habits by setting mini goals that are so simple to achieve, you actually do them. And if you do them consistently for a certain length of time – let’s say one month – they become a new habit.
Getting back to the idea of allowing yourself to look for hope in the New Year, if I were to suggest mini goals based on my personal experience, here’s what they might be:
1. Say or write one word that describes how you are feeling every day.
One of the hardest parts of grief is our natural reaction to try to suppress the pain. This might be done through outright denial, keeping busy (and therefore distracted from it), numbing it with drugs or alcohol, etc. The problem with this is that suppressing the pain only makes it worse, and can even prolong it. By saying or writing one word that describes how you feel each day, the hope is that you learn to express your feelings so that you can work through them and ultimately let them go. This might be done by journaling, attending a support group – either in person or online, talking with family or friends, or even a grief counselor. Words that I might have used four years ago to describe how I felt could include despair, guilt, panic, fatigued, hopeless, numb, disbelief, angry, despondent, etc.
2. Acknowledge one nice thing that happened that day.
When you are deep in grief, you tend to focus on what you’ve lost and the searing pain associated with it. Your world might become bleak and filled with despair. By acknowledging one nice thing that happened that day, you can begin to create a habit of gratitude, hope, and optimism. Even if you had these habits before your loss, the chances are you will experience them in a new, more meaningful way. Nice things could be as simple as someone holding the elevator door for you, or as significant as a friend stopping by to say hello and let you know they care about you.
3. Do one thing to take care of yourself every day.
This may not be difficult for some, but for myself and many others I know, this can be challenging even when you are not grieving. But in early grief, your energy is usually completely gone most of the time. Even basic chores like cooking or laundry can seem downright impossible. If there is one time in your life that you need to take care of yourself, it is now. Examples of how you can help take care of yourself include: asking your family or friends to help with things you normally take for granted (cooking a meal, doing a load of laundry, etc.), eating something healthy when you don’t have any appetite, taking a nap when you feel exhausted, letting yourself cry if you feel the urge, etc. It could even be something like treating yourself to a massage to help relieve the aching tension you are likely feeling.
4. Smile once every day.
For some, this may be the most difficult mini goal of them all. I know for a long time it was for me. I felt that if I smiled, it would somehow mean I was ok with my daughter’s death. I literally thought I had to be miserable for the rest of my life because of how much I missed her. For the sake of my other children, I forced myself to smile again. For a while, the smiles weren’t authentic, but eventually they led the way to real smiles. Further down the road, the permission to smile led to feeling happiness and even joy once again. Happiness and joy lead to hope and optimism.
That is my ultimate wish for you – happiness, joy, hope, and optimism. While you will likely have to re-learn how to invite them into your life, your ultimate motivation and guide will likely be the deep, enduring love you feel for the loved one you lost. And I know there is no end to the depth of that love.