How to handle the lump of coal the universe dropped into your Christmas stocking
The holiday season is exhausting. We bake. We make. We overeat and overdrink. We shop. We drop. It’s a lot. If you have lost a loved one whose presence is sorely missed, all of these things are more difficult. Holiday traditions fall apart if the person we shared them with is gone. Our hearts are set on going certain places, doing certain things, eating certain foods. The empty place at the table renews our heartache.
How can you handle bereavement — whether it’s your own or someone else’s — during the holidays? First of all, acknowledge it. Honor the memory of the person who is gone. Remember the past holidays spent together. Look through old photos if you have them and select one place on a shelf, hang on the tree, or use as your screensaver or desktop. Relish those memories. Feel the love even if it makes you sad.
If you know someone who is recently bereaved or still grieving a not so recent loss, realize that the holidays might make grief feel like the gift that keeps on giving. Let them know that you are aware of this. Don’t be afraid to mention the name of the person they’ve lost. Start a conversation. Ask a question. “What’s your favorite Christmas memory of your husband? Tell me what you and your girlfriend did on the last New Year’s Eve that you spent together.” These conversations may bring forth tears, but they will likely also bring back beloved memories. Pretending that grief does not exist is one of the least helpful approaches to experiencing it.
When my boyfriend died after a brief battle with lung cancer, summer hadn’t yet begun, but the loss felt fresh at Christmastime. I treated myself to a new phone, and in the process of changing carriers, I lost voicemails of his that I had carefully saved and listened to every night for six months. It was Christmas, he was gone, and now his voice was gone too. My daughters and their partners were visiting and everyone did everything they could think of to get the messages back. No one minimized the loss or my pain over it. We dove into it and even though we came up empty handed, the effort assuaged some of the hurt and assured me that I was supported and loved.
The list of things that friends and family did for me in the months after Dan’s death still feels crucial to my survival. It’s worth listing these acts of mercy in case you know someone who is grieving and you’re wondering what to do for them during the holidays. If you are bereaved yourself, maybe this list will encourage you to ask for something you might need.
First and foremost, people came to stay. One of my daughters slept in my room with me for several nights right after Dan died. I wept off and on through those nights, but I knew I wasn’t alone.
A friend came for a visit the first weekend, brought all the fixings for chili, and made a huge pot. This friend also tended to my mother, whom I was supposed to be caring for. She sat in my mom’s room and chatted, and made sure to engage her in conversation at the dinner table. One day after my friend did a bit of research, we gathered all of Dan’s prescription drugs and disposed of them at the county sheriff’s station.
My boyfriend’s adult daughter stayed in the house for a few days too. In my fractured memory of that time, she and I both staggered around sleepless — and we slept all the time — which doesn’t make sense, but that’s how I remember it. It was good to have a partner in the bleak wreck of those blurry days and nights.
After a few weeks had passed, another friend drove four hundred miles to spend several days. She arrived with half a case of wine and a cooler packed with healthy produce and treats. She made soups and served up plates of delectable goodies. Somehow we entertained the fantasy that I might sell everything I owned and live out the rest of my live in an RV, and so we went RV shopping.
When my older daughter came to visit we embarked on a home improvement project and tiled the fireplace surround with the buckets of sea glass I’d scrounged on beach walks. A lot of the glass had been picked up while walking with Dan, so it felt like a memorial to our time together.
Other friends came over now and then with wine and cheese, or took me to local wineries where we sampled wine and cheese. Even more friends walked with me, brought me books, came over just to talk, or to give me hand or shoulder massages.
People I barely knew, but who had been friends with Dan, sent cards or wrote to me with memories of him from grade school, high school, and college. Many old friends shared pictures of him.
Each of these kindnesses meant the world to me. If you’re hurting this holiday season, I hope you receive these gifts of love. If you know someone who is hurting, I hope you give the gift of your presence to them.