Handling the holidays amid grief

By Elaine Roberts The Virginian-Pilot © December 14, 2012

After the death of a family member or friend, the holidays can become extremely difficult to maneuver and even dreaded by those of us left to deal with the reality of what has happened.

What used to be looked forward to with anticipation and joy has been replaced with real concern about how to survive, how to just make it through the holidays. These are feelings you thought you would never have, but you cannot share in the joy of the season. You don’t want to get a Christmas tree, and you certainly don’t want to decorate it.

Whether it’s by accident, disease or suicide, the first year without a loved one is the toughest. While it can be difficult for many years to follow, time does seem to help people figure out what works and what doesn’t. Years later, painful memories can still come back; you thought you were better and then, wham, you’re back to the beginning. The good news is that you’re stronger and you have learned some survivor skills.

Communication is very important on this painful journey in healing, so talking about how to handle the holiday season is an important step. There are no quick fixes. Let loved ones know that you are struggling. Be gentle on yourself. If you can’t participate, it’s OK.

Some family members may want to participate, others may not, depending on how recent the death, the circumstances of the death and how each individual within the family is feeling. Each person’s feelings need to be respected.

If it is a suicide, sometimes there is anger at the loved one who took his or her life, at another family member, at yourself, at God. There’s a lot to deal with.

What can families do? Ignore the holidays, change all traditions, keep some, create new ones, keep it simple, go away on a trip? How do families want to remember and cherish the loved one who has passed? Do they light a candle, set a plate at the table, tell stories at a designated time about the loved one, go to a special place that everyone enjoyed when he or she was living?

Over time, feelings will evolve and change, but you need to look at where you are right now and talk as a family about what you want to do during the holidays.

Each suggestion and concern needs to be listened to, even if the decision is to pass on all celebrations this year. Some members of the family may be hurt by the change in traditions, but the most important thing you can do is listen to those who are affected the most and compromise. It may be the best gift you can give, and it may save relationships and family get-togethers for years to come.

Once a plan is made, make a backup plan – in reality, we don’t know if we can follow through. And just because it’s done one way the first year doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. Hopefully the holidays will evolve to a place that is meaningful for everyone.

Holidays are a big part of most people’s lives. They’re hard to escape, even when you try. Communicate and compromise – help each other get to the other side of grief – and just maybe, one day, you will truly want to decorate that Christmas tree or hang a wreath or listen to carols or light Hanukkah candles.

After all, it is the season of miracles and hope.

Elaine Roberts lost her daughter, Kaila, at age 15 in 2004 to suicide. She is founder of StillStanding, a support group that meets the second Tuesday each month at 6:30 p.m. at Spring Branch Community Church in Virginia Beach. www.StillStanding2.org.

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