By Kay Hardin, Senior Staff Chaplain, Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock
I thought Thanksgiving and Christmas would always be the same — great food laid out on the dining room table by my mom, putting up the tree and decorating it, having fun shopping till we dropped, and of course watching Christmas movies and football games together. (Don’t get me wrong. There were tense times and tears throughout the years of holidays, but when I “remember,” I usually only recall the sweet and not the sour times.)
Nine years ago my mom and I had the Thanksgiving dinner all planned — as usual. Once I got home to Nashville, Tennessee, I would make the deviled eggs and a dessert. She would do the rest. Her dressing and homemade yeast rolls could not be beat. And her sweet potato casserole . . . oh my!
No one had any idea that a heart aneurism would take her three days before Thanksgiving Day. The years following her loss, our little family had nowhere and no one to come home to. I lost my adored mom, my family holiday get-togethers, and a place to call home when her heart stopped. For me so many things were changed forever, including the holidays.
So what can we do when grief and loss slam up against our fragile hearts and souls during the holiday season? Do we just grin and bear it, hoping no one will notice and question us? Do we soldier on into the shopping and busyness of the season, exhausting ourselves completely? Do we run and hide from every colored light, every Christmas movie, and every holiday song?
Doug Manning, author and speaker on grief, says the holidays can demand a concentration we cannot give and expect emotions we are not able to deliver. Therefore Manning believes we must give ourselves permission to be who we need to be and do what we need to do to navigate our journey of grief and growth, especially during the holidays.
How do we do that? The following are some ideas and suggestions.
- Alter rather than abandon traditions. For example, some light a candle in memory of their loved one gone.
- Create ornaments or decorations that symbolize your loved one.
- Preserve your emotional strength and rethink your holiday shopping habits. Shop online and forget about battling the stores and crowds.
- Let others in on your grief. Find safe people who will listen to you and won’t try to “fix” you.
- Listen to your heart and acknowledge your limits.
- Send thank-you notes to those who were special to you and your loved one
- Simplify your celebration. Big is not always best.
- Get extra rest and eat well. Overdoing can be a reaction to grief that can lead to total physical and mental exhaustion.
- Speak the name of your loved one to others. Don’t worry if you or they feel awkward.
- Give yourself permission to say “no thank you” or “I’ll pass” to holiday invitations.
- Journal your grief — your thoughts, feelings, prayers.
- Give a gift to your church or to a special cause in memory of your loved one.
- Watch out for grief-numbing influences such as drugs, alcohol, abusive eating, obsessive shopping, etc.
- Voice a prayer as you look through the pages of your family photo album.
- Don’t worry with trying to fulfill other’s expectations about what Christmas “should” be. Free yourself to create your own meaningful Christmas.
- Cry if you need or want to.
- Find comfort and courage in the truer, deeper meaning of Christmas.
- Write a year-end letter to your deceased loved one.
Grief specialist Harold Ivan Smith encourages us: “You’re not forever jettisoning seasonal happiness. This year, grief is a reality that must be recognized, appreciated, perhaps tolerated. Grief — even during the holiday season — has important lessons to teach those who pay attention.”
The last section on Dealing with Grief in the Holidays will be How to Have Faith When Life Hurts.