Grief and the Holidays: Planning to Walk Through Holiday Grief and Sadness Together

The challenge of holiday grief after a parent's death can feel insurmountable. You have managed through the end of life issues. You negotiated and handled services of remembrance and all the details that followed. Things finally began to settle down, and now it's time to plan for the first holidays.

Grief and the holidays can provide unexpected triggers for all kinds of strong emotions. People are often lulled into believing that the worst is behind them, when holiday grief "hits them" without warning.

The problem is that grief has its own timelines that can't be calculated, its own logic that can't be deciphered, and makes its appearances at will.

The temptation would be to go to one emotional extreme or the other -- denial or to go into hiding. Many families resort to going through the motions because they assume (often wrongly) that that's what everyone else wants to do. They don't want to make Dad even more uncomfortable, so they silently vow not to mention Mom, or the holiday grief they share, and go on with the family events "as usual".

Only there is no "as usual" any more. The gap that has been left is real. The roles have changed and therefore the "holiday rules" have to change, too.

Plan Ahead

What you want is to have conversation with Dad and with your brothers and sisters about the fact that this holiday is going to be radically different. Get a sense of where everyone is emotionally, and what they fear, dread or look forward to about the holidays. Don't expect immediate agreement about what should be done. Grieving is personal and takes different forms for everyone. Families DON'T grieve alike and that can be a source of tension and conflict.

Know what you need or want, check in with Dad and try to move forward from there with the negotiations.

Common Dilemmas

*Dad is not very open with his feelings, so you're not really sure what he needs...

Write a note to him ahead of the holidays, and address the issues of holiday grief directly. Let him know that:
1. You know that this is going to be a difficult time

2. You all will be missing Mom and you know he will be especially

3. You want to make sure that things are comfortable for him, so if he has an idea of what he does or doesn't want, you'll be asking. Give him a couple of days to think about it... and then ASK.

*Someone is afraid of "losing it"...

"Losing it" is OK, if that means not being in total control and having to deal with a feeling of intense and unexpected sadness. Grief is not something that we can set on a timer, be done, and wrap it up and put it away neatly. Grief is messy, hard, surprising and NOT welcome.

Avoidance, hiding, denial, putting on a happy face to mask holiday grief may all seem useful in a specific instance, but they won't make the grief go away. It won't make the grief clear out any faster. And it won't make the journey any easier. But the only way to get it over with is to go THROUGH IT.

*Dad should be farther along than he is... what if he breaks into tears at dinner?

There is no such thing as being farther along. There is no timeline that he has to meet. Tears at dinner -- no problem. Acknowledge them. It's no cause for shame and you need to let him know. He's never been through anything like this, and neither have you. So unexpected things will happen. Uncharacteristic behaviors will show up.

*I'm worried how this will affect the grandkids...

This is a great time to talk to them again about grief and build their sense of empathy. Ask about how they are feeling... what would make them uncomfortable... what they might fear. Again, valid feelings... emotions aren't wrong. Give them permission to write, draw or say what they are feeling. And let them know that people may be acting strangely, that's what grief does... and it's OK.

Be Prepared

Some family members may be more short-tempered than normal. There may be more arguments about small things. Some may be more boisterous than usual. Some may be more quiet and withdrawn than usual.

Be prepared to keep yourself on an even keel. Get your rest, keep eating well. If you do drink, only moderately -- one or two drinks at most. You need to keep a clear head to navigate all the erratic emotions of holiday grief.

Redistribute the Roles Ahead of Time

Do you want to replicate traditions in this new reality without Mom, or do you want to do something entirely different this year and re-evaluate later?

Will we go to a restaurant or eat at home? Whose home? Will the meal be cooked or catered? Who will cook? Will the menu change at all? Who will make the dishes that Mom always made? Who will do the jobs that Mom always did? Be affirming of everyone's efforts. People will do their best, but it will never be "just like Mom did it..."

Figure Out How to Acknowledge Mom

What would work in your family?

...a toast before dinner?
...a special prayer?
...her picture in a prominent place?
...a tribute written and read by the grand children?
...telling funny stories of remembrance?
...putting on her favorite dinner music?
...singing a favorite song?
...looking at old photo albums and telling stories the children may not know?

Permission Granted

Give yourself and your family permission to be creative. There is no right or wrong way to be together in holiday grief. The key is to go through it and know that you are all going through it together no matter what method you choose.

Holidays with Elderly Parents

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