After Loss Days Leading Up to a Holiday Can be Overwhelming

August 16th, 2013

The first holiday, birthday, or anniversary are described by many families as being a stressful and painful time. Sometimes, the anticipation alone causes a grieving person to worry more on those days leading up to the day than on the day itself.

In those instances when a parent of young children have died, a surviving (and now single) parent finds him or herself balancing cumbersome traditions from past holidays, worrying about upsetting family members with "too much" talk about the person who died and meeting their children's desires for familiarity or abundant amounts of gifts. Mom may no longer be around to help watch the kids while dad sneaks out to buy toys in the middle of the night, or dad may no longer be around to help cook a holiday meal or distract an overwhelming family member.

Those first holidays can be so frightening, not knowing what feelings will be felt or what to expect from other people. Some people, naturally, feel like all the demands and traditions of previous years have to be met this year, too.

I think it can be so hard telling people, maybe most difficult to tell children, that we just can't do all that we would like to do—we'd love to, we want to, we wish we could—but we can't. Sometimes the first holidays after a death, when everyone is still trying to get their footing, can be less anxious and overwhelming with a little bit of preparation.

The first holidays can be a very fragile time in a family's relationship, but it can also lay the foundation for future celebrations and losses that won't include the person who died. In other words, openness around the fact that the family dynamic has changed can alleviate some of the expectations about this year and the future holidays. No matter how much we try to replicate our past traditions, things are most likely going to look different, they are going to feel different, and they are going to be different. Accepting and embracing this fundamental change may very well alleviate the tension around keeping those old traditions going. However, if staying true to tradition is comforting and provides a space to mourn, then one should do what they need in order to meet their emotional needs. It’s also good to ask others what they are feeling.

Here are a few simple ways to get ready for the holidays:

Prepare for the holidays

Tell the family that things will look different and from this first holiday new traditions will be made.

Know your needs and how to have them met.

This past fall my beloved grandfather died. True to the Sicilian tradition, we always had a huge, fish feast on Christmas Eve. This year, I opted out of this tradition because I don’t have the emotional energy for that type of festivity. My family has decided to do the same, comforted that I took the first step in saying “not this year, thanks.”

Perhaps the best new tradition is a mournful one.

Think about incorporating ways to "remember" the person who died during the holiday. Perhaps it is cooking their favorite meal, adding an ornament to the tree, placing an extra candle on the table, or visiting a grave.

You don't have to do this alone.

Think about those family members and friends who listen to you, those who understand what you're going through. Invite them to be with you, tell them what you need. Perhaps they can come by for dessert or listen on the phone. Of course, the holidays may also affect other family members who might react negatively to new traditions or not understand how you are feeling. Talk over your plans ahead of time, try to understand their emotions, and compromise if necessary.

You and your family can make it through the first holidays unscathed, and you will. Be gentle with yourself, tell others how you are feeling and what you need from them, accept that things will be different this year, and avoid adding any unnecessary stress during this already difficult time.

Originally posted at The New Jersey Journal, 12/14/2009 used with permission of the author.

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