Family / Grief & loss

Grief for the holidays

Last Saturday night, dozens of friends, neighbors, and family gathered ‘round our piano for a holiday caroling party.  We’ve held one every year since we moved into our home, but this year, I kept myself busy in the kitchen, and sang not one note.  Every year since we moved into our home, my dad has been an honored guest at this party, his baritone always audible among the others.  He died a little over a month ago, and this year his absence has been the biggest presence for me in every holiday room.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to make it through one song intact, so I didn’t even try.

Grieving is a part-time job, at least. Depending on the nature of the loss and how early one is on the life-long journey in its wake, grief can be full-time-sized. But whatever its size, grief is usually a very tough fit with holidays.  A huge point of annual traditions is the repetition of rituals, year in and year out.  The lighting of the menorah, the stringing of lights on a tree, the latkes, the cookies, the songs, the games, you name it.  Core family and cultural values are conveyed in these times, and those closest to us have done the most to shape the meaning in our lives.  When they are gone, particularly for the first iteration of that annual tradition  – birthday, anniversary, cherished holidays – the hole is especially gaping.  It is impossible not to notice what Alexandra Rosas so eloquently called “The Empty Chairs at the Table.”

What to do, when many around you are feeling thankful and celebrating? The hospice care agency we used for my father’s end-of-life care sent me some literature which I found helpful. It’s here on their page “Coping with Grief During the Holidays.” Below are highlights (each followed by my two cents):

  • Set realistic expectations for yourself.
    • The lower you set your expectations for yourself – and others’ of you – the easier things will be. Way better to be pleasantly surprised by your capacity than to overextend and overwhelm yourself and crash.
  • Surround yourself with people who love and support you.
    • You will be drained hugely by folks who don’t at least partially “get” what you’re going through. Those who genuinely do, and aren’t at a loss (here are some ideas how not to be at a loss to help) are godsends.
  • Try to avoid isolating yourself or “cancelling” the holiday.
    • Only bite off what you can chew, as it were, but consider that being alone or totally shutting down the event can exacerbate the sorrow.
  • Allow yourself to feel joy, sadness, anger – allow yourself to grieve.
    • Everyone grieves differently. Grief also expresses itself in a huge range of feeling, not just sorrow. And don’t feel bad when or if you do feel happy.
  • Take care of yourself.
    • Hard, perhaps, for parents caring for kids. But try to enlist others’ help so that you can take the time you need.
  • Create a new tradition or ritual that accommodates your current situation.
    • Meeting the absence with a new presence is not ignoring or disrespecting that loss, but rather a way to see it with new eyes, and help it shed new light for you.

This last suggestion – about creating a new tradition – feels really hopeful to me. We have to find ways to weave our loved ones into the lives we’re still living, and keep them as close as we need them to be in our hearts, particularly at times when ritual and tradition are so omnipresent.  Mine may be very small, maybe even noticeable just to me, but doing something special, something for and with my dad, seems very important.

What’s Your Grief is a very smart, fairly young (year-old) site run by two mental health professionals dedicated to exploring and supporting the grieving process across all age groups and situations. If the handful of smart ideas from the hospice site above aren’t enough, they’ve corralled “64 Tips for Coping with Grief at the Holidays.” I also imagine their post “Practical Plan for Dealing with the Holidays After a Loss” could be quite helpful particularly when one is feeling deeply adrift and in need of some guidance.

For my part, I am carrying a photograph of my father around with me from room to room, and setting it somewhere where I can make eye contact with him and talk with him in my head.  (Over a month away, I am evolving past, “What the f*ck, Dad?” which I said to his photograph in shock for weeks, despite the long slow preparation we had. He was around for so very long, it made it even more wrong for him to not be.) I also have one photograph of him  located prominently on the mantelpiece, and I light candles around it each night. I have something of his (a ring, a shirt) on me at all times, so I can simply feel in some sort of communion. I listen to music I know he liked. At important dinners, the photograph has a prominent position on or adjacent to the table. I take time alone as I need, and remind those around me as often as I need to that I am quiet, or sad, or slow, or what have you, because a large portion of me is quietly hard at work digesting his absence, and making sense of the new parentless world and my place in it.

This is my path, today. There are as many ways to cope as there are people coping. Those of you carrying a burden of loss through this winter’s holiday season: what have you done? What has helped you?



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  1. Hugs to you and yours Polly! I have no stories to share right now… But I am so thankful you would take the time to impart some wisdom with us all. Your Dad, I am sure, would not be surprised by your selflessness or your love for him.

  2. My best friend lost her dad quite suddenly in October, and just reading this my heart is breaking for both you and her because this puts into words what I’m sure she is going through and I’m so sorry that you’re having to go through it too. Be gentle with yourself. I’ll keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

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