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From The Vault: Getting Through The Holidays After Losing a Loved One

“From The Vault” is a series of posts pulled from old journal entries, blogs, or musings that were created long before the launch of this site, but still hold wisdom that applies today.

I wrote the following piece for a guest post on a friend’s blog in December 2014, nearly two years after losing my father. The post below includes a few minor edits.

Two years ago in late November, my father suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm from which he initially recovered; but sadly, he passed away the following February. We had the better part of a year before facing the dreaded holiday season without our family’s patriarch, yet the wounds were still fresh. As we round out our second lap around the sun since he passed, I’d like to share some tips for navigating this tricky season if you, too, have recently lost a loved one.

1. Honor their presence without dwelling on their absence:

There is no denying the fact that someone important is missing from the family dinner table. Look for ways to honor their life without dwelling on their death. Keep their picture prominently displayed in your home. Light a candle in their honor. Or keep a token of remembrance with you:

Cook the family dinner sporting your grandmother’s old apron.

Wear the necklace your mother gave you for your 16th birthday.

Carry your grandpa’s lucky penny in your pocket.

In addition to physical reminders, actively remember your loved one aloud. You’d be amazed how storytelling lightens the mood and somehow resurrects the presence of loved ones gone too soon. Hopefully when you look back on this holiday in 5 years you’re not saying, “Remember that year we all sat around crying?” but rather, “Remember all those hilarious stories we told about Grandpa on our first Christmas without him?”

2. Change up traditions, if you’re comfortable with that:

If you’re a family with strong traditions, maybe this is the year to start new ones, or even take a year off from the norm. Everything is going to feel different already without your loved one, so perhaps it’s the ideal time to try something completely new.

Let someone else host the holiday dinner.

Open presents in the evening instead of first thing in the morning.

Travel to a new city to celebrate the holiday.

It may seem daunting at first, but you might find a strange comfort in embracing the changes and starting a new tradition. However, some people will find more comfort in carrying on the same traditions as a way of honoring the one you’ve lost. That’s okay, too. You have to know what is best for you. But if you find yourself dreading the festivities you used to look forward to, revamp them.

3. Don’t suppress your sadness:

Loss is tough, and grief is complicated.** You’re allowed to struggle. Heavy moments will show up when you least expect them to; know that they are temporary. Don’t invite them to stay, but don’t push them away either. Feel them. Let them run their course. Be present with whatever feeling you experience in a given moment, recognizing that each emotion is part of the winding path of grief… then send it on its way.

For instance, it’s okay to quietly excuse yourself from the table because you’re crying in your turkey pining, “I really wish Papa were here.” Go cry it out in the other room, let your loving boyfriend offer you a comforting hug while you weep in his arms. Then wipe your eyes, blow your nose, splash water on your face, and get back to enjoying your company – after all, it’s the holidays! (This may or may not be a scene from my real life last Thanksgiving.)

4. Relish the time with those who remain in your life:

Life is precious, and you understand this more clearly now than ever before. So think about all those things you wish you could say to or do with your lost loved one, and take the time to engage in a meaningful way with the folks who are still around. It will minimize the possibility of future regrets. Plus, you don’t want to miss out on important memories with the rest of your family and friends because you were so caught up in mourning the one(s) you lost.

5. Celebrate moments when you see your loved one living on through others:

One of the coolest things for me is to see a relative make a face like my father, or tell a joke that would evoke his shoulder-jiggling laugh. My favorite is when I say something and the moment the words leave my lips, I’m struck by how much I sound like my papa. It’s even better when someone else notices it too. He may be gone, but he’s still very much alive, not only in our hearts, but our personalities as well. Recognize and celebrate the little quirks in your family members that keep your loved one alive.

Keep in mind that grieving isn’t about learning to forget and move on. It’s about simultaneously accepting the loss while celebrating the memory, carrying with you the love and lessons they brought to your life.

Wishing you and yours a holiday season full of love, courage, grace, strength, and the comfort of sweet memories!

**The complexities of loss and grief mean that none of these options may feel appropriate to you, and that is okay. The above advice is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for grief. It is merely my personal experience. Only you know what will serve you, and I wish you healing that fits you just right.

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