For families who are facing significant loss, the holidays can feel especially painful and overwhelming. Memories of our loved ones have a way of attaching themselves to music, movies, smells, foods and traditions, and if you have lost a family member, a friend or even a pet, it's easy to feel bombarded this time of the year with emotions.
Nancy Hamlin, now in her 11th year of volunteering in Willow Creek Community Church's grief support workshop, lost her mother in 1993 when she was 34, her father in 2010 when she was 50, and has experienced the pain of divorce. She knows how challenging the holidays can be -- especially the first holiday without your loved one.
Whether your family is grieving a loss this year, or you know someone who is, Hamlin shares the following tips to help make the holidays more manageable:
• Create a plan. Don't let the holidays frighten or ambush you. But don't go into the season with the same plan as last year or with your fingers crossed that it will all work out. Spend some time thinking about what you want to do on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day. Think about what is going to make you feel the most comfortable, and don't let other people tell you what to do. A plan can give you structure and a sense of control. Be honest about what you can handle -- and what you can't handle -- then tell your friends and family about your plan. Face the issues head-on.
• Develop realistic expectations. This is not going to be your best holiday season ever. BUT -- it also does not have to be your worst. Finding joy may be difficult. Be honest with yourself, and with your children -- this is going to be a very different holiday for you, the first one that you celebrate without your loved one, and it's going to hurt. But with a plan and realistic expectations, you can get through it without feeling wounded in the process, and maybe even with a little nod of joy in tribute to your loved one.
• Expect powerful emotions. You are probably already used to the powerful sweep of emotions that wash over you at a moment's notice. This is the time of year filled with family memories, family expectations and family togetherness. You will be hit with feelings that are directly connected to your loss -- be prepared, and don't be scared. You will get through it. And just because you have bad moments doesn't mean you are regressing.
• Talk about your loved one. This breaks the ice and gives others permission to do the same. People may be apprehensive to bring up memories or even mention your loved one's name, for fear of upsetting you. Share a favorite story, or talk about something they loved about the holidays. When you acknowledge the person's absence and your feelings, you open it up for others to do the same.
• Traditions are a central part of holiday celebrations. You want to remember your loved one, celebrate their life and what the holidays meant to them -- but the holidays will never be the same again. You don't create new traditions instantly; neither do you know which past traditions you want to keep the first year. But begin the thought process; begin the conversations so that these can happen for you and your family during future holiday seasons.
• Remember past traditions. Past traditions keep your loved one's memory alive for yourself and future generations. Hamlin explains, "My mother loved Christmas, so there are many food traditions I have kept alive, and I share these stories of my mother with my children every year as we cook and eat together."
• Create new traditions. These are not dishonoring to your loved one -- they are a realistic way for you and your family to move forward. Hamlin recalls a new tradition her friend's family began after suffering a devastating loss. "One of my close friends from grade school lost her father to cancer in third grade. Her mom began taking her and her four siblings to Florida for Christmas every year. What started out as possibly a family escape turned into a new tradition that has been cherished to this day. Christmas, for her family, means Florida. And her friends, myself included, were always jealous of their special family celebrations." You may want to purchase a gift that you know your loved one would have liked, and then donate it to charity. You may want to hang a stocking in memory of your loved one and invite family and friends to leave notes inside. Be creative, and don't be afraid to think outside the box.
• Find safe people and safe places during the holidays. Intentionally spend time with people who "get" you -- who get where you are in your grief journey and won't put any pressure on you to act differently than you feel. You won't be able to orchestrate every event to feel safe, but consciously seek out those people and places where you can be the most authentic.
• Give yourself permission to do healthy hiding. You may need some time to be by yourself, when you don't have to be anything or do anything for anybody. Don't feel bad about wanting to be alone at times. Maybe you can only handle the holiday dinner and then need to go home to be alone with your memories. Maybe you don't send out cards, go to the usual parties, and see all of the same people. You don't need to answer every phone call or email, or accept every invitation. Healthy hiding is OK, as long as you don't isolate yourself from the comfort of those who understand and love you. A great deal of the healing process does take place alone.
• Be aware of the meaning of holidays. It's a time for family, friends, togetherness and joy. But remember, the holidays are a couple days out of the year. Don't take away their meaning to diminish your pain, and don't give them more power than they deserve. It's another day without your loved one -- you have made it through many, and you will make it through these days as well.
• For more information about Willow Creek's next grief support workshop that begins Jan. 22, 2014, visit willowcreek.org/griefsupport. For more resources on grief support, visit griefslinky.blogspot.com.