We all know what life was like before grief set in and took over every thought. We anticipated holidays with excitement and found wonder in every moment from buying gifts, to wrapping them and watching loved ones open them, it was magic. That kind of anticipation was joyous, and we reveled in the lead-up to the holiday and looked forward to celebrating.
It is a very different kind of anticipation when loved ones have passed. The holiday anticipation is not buoyant and bright, but heavy and dark. Dread sets in and decorations are not hung, feasts are not prepared, and despair runs rampant.
We go through the motions of the holidays without any emotions. The shock is numbing, and we cannot anticipate how we will feel over the holidays. It is much like anticipatory grief: When you know someone will die soon, you may spend your time worrying and feeling helpless. You may feel separated from other people, particularly in the holiday season.
A 1934 film titled “Death Takes a Holiday” was remade in 1998 as “Meet Joe Black”. Joe was a death angel who spent time on earth as a human guide to a wealthy man who was about to celebrate his 65th birthday. The man asked for more time and Joe granted it and no one passed away at that time.
It was a fantasy we wish could be a reality. Death pays little attention to birthdays or holidays. Though it is said life goes on, it does not feel that way with grief. Time stands still. Death does not take a holiday, but it can take and hold your holidays hostage.
It is natural to anticipate grief, but it hurts and can make you irritable or detached. The saying “you must feel it to heal it” is sadly true. Take time to accept you cannot circumvent the pain of celebrating holidays without your loved one. We hear a lot about “holding space” for one another, but you need to do it for yourself and the deceased. But how?
The answer is in any way you choose, not the way others tell you to handle it or how they did it. Grief is not a competition. You cannot completely compartmentalize it and pretend it is over. It is there. Cry. Laugh. Sob. Yell. Be yourself. Withdraw and wallow in the pain-but only for a while.
Acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorders can rewire your brain. One symptom is a desire to detach or feeling estranged from others, unable to feel positive emotions. Your brain sends over-protective signals. You believe if you let no one in and do not go out you will not get hurt. Your brain is protecting you so much it is doing harm. We are simultaneously wired for safety and connectivity. If these wires get crossed in our brains, we can feel unsafe and frozen.
Anticipation of the holidays can become unbearable, and every therapist will tell you, this is not always the most wonderful time of the year for those we serve. We can only make suggestions and hope that they inspire some relief that reduces negative anticipation.
The suggestions below are some ways begin but you may choose not to celebrate, too. It is okay not to be okay. Doing nothing is sometimes best, particularly for the first-year marker of a holiday after someone’s passing.
There are other ways to honor your grief that is unique and sacred to you. These are not one-size-fits-all solutions but gentle tools to help you cope and restore some semblance of hope.
- Live in the present moment. Focus on the here and now. Go into the holidays with no anticipation or expectations other than being curious like a child. Being present is the greatest present you can give yourself. You do not dwell on the past. By living in the moment, you gain momentum for the future. It is not one day at a time with grief; it is one moment at a time. It’s one breath. It’s one attempt at a smile. When you live in the here and now, it allows the future unfolds organically and is gracefully healing. The dread is not so dreadful.
- Accept a few invitations. It will be difficult but brave. You can tell the host you may arrive late and leave early but go anyway. Being around kind people helps you realize it is safe to attempt to be okay again.
- Take walks with music or join a yoga class. Stress chemicals subside while the good chemicals increase. It will relieve the dissociation. Make sure it is something you like to do. This is not about punishment but gentle healing at your pace.
- Consider traveling. In trauma we are interchangeably in fight/flight or frozen states that put us in survival mode. Traveling to new locations during the holidays or to places where you may find ways to honor your loved ones will help.
- Help others; it often helps you. Proceed with caution so you do not take on vicarious trauma. It may mean buying toys for local children in need. It lifts the spirit you are making someone else’s holiday better. Someone is hurting somewhere. You can make a difference for them and yourself.
- Join a support group. If volunteering is too much, it may help to join a group. Most local Hospice chapters have free support groups. You are on one of the finest websites to connect with others who are grieving over the holidays and every day. I found OpentoHope.com when I was grieving. The articles helped me not feel alone. Writing has always been part of my life and volunteering for this site is a way of letting others know they are not alone. I am past the severe trauma, but the holidays were when I lost someone to a tragedy in my family. But I am ever cognizant in my personal life and professional life as a therapist that people need support. I anticipate the holidays to be a little less cheerful for many.
- Commemorate your loved one. This may be as simple as lighting one candle and putting it on a place setting and leaving the chair empty. You may go around the table and ask others to share their memories.
- Break traditions. You may want to do the opposite of commemoration. You may want to go out and buy new decorations. Doing something novel in this time of transition can bring back a bit of wonder with a fresh perspective.
- Ask for help and insulate yourself. This does not mean you have to unload all your trauma on to family and friends. Reach out to trusted confidants who will listen and be there if you want them to be and not if you don’t. There are professionals, too. It takes more bravery to ask for help than to suffer in solitude or silence. There is a big difference between isolating and insulating.
Anticipatory grief does not have to overtake you. Reach out and know the Open to Hope community is here to support you and guide you on this day and especially through the holidays.
Read more from Mary Joye on Open to Hope: This Valentine’s Day, Turn Your Loss into Valuing Yourself – Open to Hope
Visit Mary Joye’s website at Winter Haven Counselor Family Therapy | Couples Therapy | Anxiety Therapy Winter Haven, FL (winterhavencounseling.com).