Dealing with Grief During the Holidays

It’s been 710 days since my mom died. This is our second round of holidays without her–our second round of everything without her.

It’s a widely-accepted belief that the first year after you lose someone is the hardest. But lately, several people I know who have also lost a loved one, have told me that the second year was actually harder for them. And I agree, because that has been my experience, too.

Maybe it’s because there’s an expectation that we will feel better after we survive all those “firsts”, and then there is added disappointment and sadness when we don’t.

Or maybe it’s because the more time passes, the longer we’ve had to live without that person–the longer it’s been since we’ve seen their face, heard their voice….

For me, it feels like being homesick. Remember that feeling when you were a kid at a sleepover, or at summer camp, and all you wanted was to go home? You longed for that comfort, that familiarity of the place where all felt right in the world.

Missing my mom feels a lot like homesickness, except the ache is bigger, because there is no homecoming where she will be there again, and the feeling will go away. At least not in this life.

This second year has also brought a realization that even though we’ve made it through the first year, and now almost the second, there will continue to be “firsts” without her.

She’s already missed the engagement of her first granddaughter, her bridal shower and her wedding.

She missed the first holiday dinners that I hosted in my new home, a home that she never even got to see, because it wasn’t finished until after she died. And dinners that I only hosted, because she wasn’t here to carry on the tradition herself.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Time heals all wounds”. Well, I call bullshit on that. Time heals all wounds is a lie we tell ourselves because the thought of carrying this type of pain forever is too much to bear.

Time heals nothing. The only thing time does is offer us the opportunity to do the work that it takes to move forward, to find a way to hold our grief without it dominating the path of our lives. Only if we are willing to do the hard work of mourning, can we arrive at a place where we can function around the softened edges of the pain.

Wherever you may be in this journey, I have a few simple suggestions that may help you navigate the holiday season.

1. Find a way to honor your memories

Recalling happy memories of holidays past with your loved one is a way to include them in your current reality.

I find myself often saying to my husband, my dad, or my kids, “Remember how Mom used to….” . Even though it causes a little twinge of pain in my heart, it’s also comforting because it keeps her memory alive, and reminds me of all the reasons why she is so dearly missed.

Honoring my mom’s memory is a way of keeping her close. Several months ago, my dad told me about something that someone had shared with him. He said that seeing a cardinal is a symbol that your lost loved one is near.

I like this idea. Seeing one of these beautiful red birds, unexpectedly, as I’m going about my regular activities is a reminder to pause, and take a minute to think about my mom. It’s an opportunity to connect with her for just a brief, fleeting moment.

This Christmas, little red cardinals have found their way into my holiday decorating. I like having them around my house, and feeling that tiny connection to my mom’s memory.

My husband brought home this beautiful centerpiece in an ash wood pot for me. I immediately fell in love with the red cardinal peeking out from the greenery.
I perched this little guy at the top of the porch pot I made.
Several red cardinal ornaments have been added to my Christmas tree.

2. Create new traditions

The first year after my mom’s death, we continued having holiday gatherings at her house, with my dad, because that was his wish. We did it because it was important to him, and we all wanted to do whatever we could to ease his suffering. But for me, that was so hard. It felt like going through the motions, trying to recreate the way things were when she was there, but to no avail. There was just a big empty spot where she should have been, and being in her house, where she had hosted all of our family gatherings for years and years highlighted her absence all the more.

In the second year, we began holding the holiday dinners at my home. And while it felt odd, and unfamiliar, it was also less painful in my opinion. There was still the wound of her not being there, but I didn’t feel like I was drowning in her memory.

Moving the holiday gathering to a new location helped change it up just enough that the pain of missing her felt more manageable. And even though we changed the location, I still made a point to work in little things that reminded me of her, and helped keep her memory connected to our new tradition.

At our first Easter dinner at my house instead of hers, I didn’t feel up to taking on all the cooking like she always did, so instead we ordered our holiday dinner from HyVee. But, I did incorporate some of the dishes she had given me over the years into our table setting. It was comforting to have a few things that reminded me of her on the table.

In November, we hosted the first Thanksgiving at my house without her. By then, I was ready to take on a bit more, and it felt soothing to get out some of our traditional family recipes that she always made, and cook them myself for our family dinner.

By Christmas, I was ready to tackle the recipe that my mom was known for–her famous sugar cookies. She made them every single year for my whole life. It wouldn’t have felt like Christmas without them, so late one night last week, I decided I had to make them. I poured a glass of wine, put on some Christmas music and spent the next couple of hours wrapped in my mom’s memory as I mixed, rolled, cut, and baked them.

3. Do something kind

My mom had a kind heart. She was really good at taking care of people. She did so many little things for all of us day in and day out that were reflections of her love.

It is comforting now to take opportunities to do something kind for others as a way of paying tribute to her. Every time I gift a gift, make a donation, or do something to help someone else, I stop and think of how good she was at those types of things, and what big shoes I have to fill. Emulating her kindness is part of the legacy she left behind.

4. Allow yourself to feel

There isn’t any way around grief. You have to go right through the middle of it.

Even now, nearly two years after my mom’s death, there are still moments where I have to stop everything I’m doing and break down for a little bit. I know that if I don’t allow myself to feel the grief when it arises, but instead try to push it away or cover it up, it will just come back later. And if you do that too many times, it manages to come back in a bigger way, at an even more inopportune time.

You have to allow yourself to feel the pain, or the longing, or even the anger. It sucks. But dealing with it as it comes, in small, frequent doses, is much better than pushing it away for too long and then getting sucked into a big black cloud that you can’t get out of.

Looking at pictures of my mom, like this one, brings tears to my eyes, an ache to my heart.

My beautiful mom at my wedding.

Sometimes I’m tempted to not look when a photo like this unexpectedly pops up on my Facebook timeline, and my mom’s smile sucks the breath out of me.

For a moment, I want to click away from the picture, to escape the pain. But then, I stop. I allow myself to feel it. I look. And after a minute, the pain subsides and instead I notice how beautiful my mom looks in this picture, even though she was in the midst of battling a merciless cancer that would ultimately take her away from us just two short months after this photo was taken.

I can remember how happy I was the day of my wedding, and how grateful I am that she got to be a part of it.

I can look at her picture, and remember how she set such an example for all of us of what a strong woman looks like.

The pain of missing her is still there, and always will be. But the happy memories outshine the pain after a few moments, if I just give myself a minute to allow the feelings in.

5. Give yourself a break

“I need a break” is a phrase I’ve learned to say over the past two years. Grief is kind of like an app that’s always open in the background, draining power even when you aren’t aware of it. You’re going about your daily routines, working, managing all of your other relationships and obligations, but even if you don’t realize it, your grief is always there in the background, drawing on your energy reserves as you cope, process, and try to move forward.

So if you find yourself tired, irritable, overly-emotional, it’s okay to take a break. Sometimes we need a chance to replenish our energy stores, to put down some of our other responsibilities for a while and allow our spirit to recharge. Working through grief is hard work, especially at the holidays, when the absence of a loved one may be particularly highlighted.

This year, I’ve had to let go of some of the details and plans I had hoped to do for the holidays, in the interest of self-preservation. Not only are we all still adjusting to Christmases without my mom, but my dad has been in and out of the hospital for the whole month of December. Being in the hospital with him triggers a lot of the painful memories of being there with my mom several times in her last few months, so it’s doubly hard.

Managing all these emotions, painful memories, and worries requires extra energy. That means some things have to get cut out to allow for that, or else you will find yourself depleted.

So give yourself a break. Cut unessential things off your to-do list. Scale back the level of your holiday celebrations. Ask for help with things when you need it. Decline some of those invitations to holiday parties and cookie-exchanges, and instead use the time for something that helps you replenish.

No, time does not heal all wounds, but what I have learned is that grief ebbs and flows. There are days when it feels pretty far away, so far in the distance that I almost remember what it felt like before I had this hole in my heart.

But there are also days that I have to work at putting one foot in front of the other. Days where everything feels like a struggle because I wish so much that I could still be shopping for a Christmas gift for my mom, still call her up and ask for advice about how to get those famous cookies to turn out just right, or still pop over to her house and see her in her kitchen, just doing the things she always did.

Love doesn’t end in death. The grief doesn’t end, because the love doesn’t end. But it helps to see that all the best parts of my mom live on in the people she loved and nurtured. And that’s the best gift I could ask for this holiday season.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. –Matthew 5:4

4 thoughts on “Dealing with Grief During the Holidays

  1. I lost my dad two and a half years ago. The first impact of grief, in all its rawness, has subsided but the pain of missing him is still ever present. I really like your description of it being like homesickness, because that truly is what it feels like. In fact, your entire post resonates with me. I am so sorry you lost your mom and that your dad isn’t doing well. I hope that he’ll be okay and that you and your loved ones have a calm and warm Christmas.

    1. Thank you Alexandra, for taking the time to post your kind words, and share your experience, too. It always seems to help when I meet another person who really “gets it”. I wish you peace and comfort this Christmas season, too.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to your mum, and I am so sorry for your loss. We are always standing with one foot in celebration and the other in lament. May we find grace to honor the pastor and to anticipate the future with joy.

    1. Thank you, Michele, for taking the time to read my post about my mom and for your kind regards. I agree, we are always working to find a peaceful balance that allows us to hold our grief, yet still find joy in our present and future.

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