Holiday Help: Christmas Or Thanksgiving After A Death

Information to assist your family in mourning during the holidays season. Ways that you can honor those that have passed away.

As the holidays approach, those who have experienced the recent loss of a loved one may be dreading the experience. Somehow feelings are more tender, pain more real during the holidays. In a season of sentimental music, good cheer, fancy food and heartfelt gift-giving and -receiving, it's tough to feel nothing so much as a sense of loss. Friends and family sometimes can't make things better, and are often impatient with the prolonged grief that many experience. Yet whether the loss is fresh or the anniversary of a loved one's death is coming up, getting through the holidays is a problem, as many struggling to recover have shared.

The first holiday after a child's, parent's or spouse's death may be particularly painful, especially serving the departed one's favorite foods, singing their favorite songs, or doing any other activities that remind us of holidays past""with the major difference that we will never again experience a holiday with that loved one. Some in grief choose to keep favorites on the menu and to talk about their memories during the bittersweet celebration. That does, however, take an understanding and supportive family.

It is important to recognize that we have choices to make about how we celebrate. If the one in grief is fortunate enough to be attending a grief support group, these are the kinds of realizations that will be gained from the shared experience of others.

Whether a spouse, child, parent, sibling or close friend died last month or two years ago, the survivors whose holidays were previously wrapped in love and family closeness have a lot to get through. It's important to recognize the impossibility of ever returning to normal, whatever normal might be, and to move on, when possible.

One widower says he survives the holidays with his daughters' support. His daughter, however, struggles with the responsibility of hosting the holiday meal. "Only Mom could make the gravy""no one else's comes close." So she asks the family to adjust to Mom's loss by not expecting her to take over the gravy-making or even the identical menu. Another family, faced with a loss that occurred on a holiday itself, asked an in-law to host the scheduled celebration. Changed plans, and someone's kindness, helped them get through.

Some families cling to old ways to help keep the memories of their loved ones alive. Others try something new, a different place or time to celebrate, such as dinner out when dinner used to be served at home, or having brunch instead of the traditional dinner, to keep old memories from opening new wounds.

Even if traditional plans are kept, it's also probably a good idea to originate something new, such as making plans for a memorial garden in the loved one's names when the weather warms up. Recalling which trees, bushes and flowers were the departed one's favorites may actually help alleviate the pain, especially with something new to look forward to in another season. This type of activity helps keep hope alive, and everyone who has experienced a loss can benefit from hope.

The simplest holiday activities, sending cards, buying gifts, even attending religious services, can be either a deep source of solace or of heart-wrenching pain at this time of year. We're all different. There is no right or wrong. The one in grief needs to decide which will be a solace, and which a burden for them at this difficult time.

Whatever folks decide about how to celebrate the season, they should discuss how they envision the holidays, enlist help, and not keep fears and feelings private. If family support or the guidance of a friend isn't helping get them through what was once a wonderful time and is now a time of loss and sorrow, they need to reach out for more focussed help.

Individual counseling or a grief support group is vital. There are local groups sponsored by churches, funeral homes, and community agencies. Your local town government services may be able to direct you to a setting available in your area.

Until then, those grieving must take heart that others have gone through the process of experiencing holidays without a loved one and survived. Sorrow perhaps will never end, but help could lead to what the deceased loved one would have wished for those they left behind""a sense of peace, and moments of healing for the holidays.

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