Holiday Grief and Loss: Keep it Simple, Shed the Shoulds and Make a Plan

“Grief is just love with no place to go.”

-Jamie Anderson

This week, a reader (who is also a friend), wrote, “This holiday I am dreading missing mom a lot.”

My friend’s simple confession brought me back sharply to how I started walking this healing path to begin with. Inevitably, the spotlight comes to rest on an 11 1/2-year-old kid whose father died in the prime of his life, out of the blue, one Monday in June.

It was summer vacation. I was having dinner at my best friend’s house. They were non-Italians, having non-Italian spaghetti and meatballs, which was a novelty to me, like canned ravioli.

I got home from dinner in time to hear Mom and Dad having an argument about the fact that he didn’t feel well but wouldn’t stay home from work. He taught evening school for what we now call ESL students. He left for work. And died outside the classroom.

That Fall, the anticipation of the impossible, a Christmas without my father, loomed large and painful on the horizon as the holiday season approached. Then, we were saved: We were going to spend Christmas with our cousins in Dunmore, Pennsylvania! Four sisters, two parents, some aunts and uncles, Mom, my brother and me. A drafty Pennsylvania house would be full of cousins, food, presents and laughter.

I remember my cousin Paula and I spending hours reading jokes aloud to each other and cracking up so badly we couldn’t speak or even stand up. I still remember the joke, in fact. I remember my cousins’ mother, a nurse, forbidding us to speak of “piles” of gifts, because “piles” were hemorrhoids. I remember a cacophony at the dinner table and church on Christmas Eve, followed by a drive through the neighborhoods where each family outdid the other with lavish displays of lights and statuary.

A change in routine engages your attention on the present moment. You’ll still spend time remembering times past, but you’ll also have some breaks.

Taken without the overlay of pain and grief, loss is change. We have it in our heads that every Christmas season growing up was the same. Maybe that’s so. But the older we get, the more likely it is that we’ll face change. The holidays have a way of highlighting those changes, especially the ones that are not welcome.

Find simple ways to honor the person, honor yourself and honor your relationship.

Grief includes feeling not only the absence of what or who we knew, but also facing the uncertainty of what’s to come. Walking from what has been to what will be is a vulnerable, delicate, extremely potent human experience. It pays to take that walk as mindfully as we can, honoring ourselves, the other person and the relationship. In honoring–naming, owning, acknowledging, and feeling–the truth of who that person was, who they were to us, and who we were to ourselves in relation to them, we pave the way for what is to come next, perhaps by facing the whole truth of what has been.

This process doesn’t happen in a week, a month, a season. For me, it’s happened over a lifetime. I could mark each occasion after my father’s death as a milestone in the evolution of who I am, who he was, and who we were to each other, in the painful absence of those things now that he’s gone, and in the sometimes poignant arrival of a new way that things are.

At some point it’s okay, in fact essential, to ask ourselves what we want and need in order to have these things as our truths, but also in order to continue existing in physicality, because that is what we are tasked with doing: continuing to live our lives.

Whatever the reason they came to be, changing circumstances offer us the opportunity to evaluate our priorities, searching within for our truth, and respond in ways that are right for us. 

Asking ourselves what we want and how to take care of ourselves are ways of getting re-acquainted with ourselves. They are a way in that might serve as a guide as we traverse the empty plain that is life after loss of all the valuable and beloved aspects of what is no longer.

I wish I knew what wanting is, but I trust it. I trust an impulse within that seeks out a complement, that is trying to fill a need. It pays to be savvy when listening to our wants, but it’s a place to start. Learning to care for ourselves during this time is like learning to walk again. “Care” may take on different meanings now. Obviously, we need to eat, sleep, drink. But what about our hearts? Our living relationships? Our stressed and tired bodies? How about laughter? Magic? Treasuring the what-is?

I don’t know the answers, but over the years, as I’ve actively engaged in healing work, I’ve learned some good questions. I’ve learned that it’s okay to have fun and it’s okay not to. It’s even okay to completely ignore the holidays, eat cold pizza and watch old episodes of the Simpsons. 

But some things do help, and maybe most of all, the act of stopping and saying, “Look. It’s gonna be rough. I’m not looking forward to it. What do I want? What do I most definitely not want? What are some new ways I can nurture myself? How do I feed my soul during this time? How do I be not so alone, yet alone enough to have my own experience?”

You can feel grief and loss even if nobody died.

If you’re someone who just feels sad at holiday time, even though, you tell yourself, “Nobody died,” or “Everything’s great!” I have an observation to share: There’s something in the air at the winter holidays. It’s sadness mixed with longing, mixed with wonder, love, hope and waiting for miracles. There’s an exquisite squeezing of the heart that’s almost impossible to miss.

If you’re feeling sad or nostalgic or sensitive, this one’s for you. Right here, this blog post. Between you and me, it’s okay. Just feel it.

Keep it simple, shed the shoulds and make a plan

So I’ve put together a guide to discovering how you might navigate the holiday season. It’s a simple playbook that will help you glean some strategy to prevent being plowed under or over by the holiday festivities.

Here’s what’s in the Holiday Health Playbook

  1. Daily Maintenance: Daily Musts, No-Fail Stress Reducers 
  2. Mind: Track the Happy, Ditch the Crappy
  3. Body: Indulge Wisely, Pamper Wildly
  4. Spirit: Holiday Hacks for the Soul, More Ways to Keep Your Energies Calm and Bright
  5. Putting it All Together: Your Personalized Plan

Download the Holiday Health Playbook, your personalized guide to keeping it simple, shedding the shoulds and making a plan–for free.

Published by Phyllis Capanna

Phyllis Capanna, MA, OTR/L, occupational therapist and counselor, creates mental health and wellness printables to help you shift your moment in times of change.

%d bloggers like this: