The holidays are hard for grieving hearts, I know. My mom died three years and five months ago.
I remember clearly that first holiday season when I couldn't bear to even think about Thanksgiving dinner and cried myself to sleep after it was all over.
I also remember that first Christmas, and my heart broke first thing when she wasn't there to see my kids open their gifts from Santa and all morning as we prepared the meal and all afternoon when we would have been playing games around the kitchen table.
I cried a lot that whole first year, and a lot of the second year wasn't much better.
As much as I tried to be joyful and content with my sweet little family and our carefully choreographed holiday plans, my heart ached with grief. I missed my mom, and all the happiness around me didn't fill the hole she left in my heart.
I had plenty of reasons to be joyful, not the least of which was the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I had a doting husband, two beautiful and wonderful young daughters, a supportive father and sisters, Old Grandma, and warm in-laws. I had a loving church family and a good job and everything I needed.
Even with all that, my heart was empty and joy-less. I just missed my mom.
As I said above, the holidays are brutal for those who are grieving. There's the intense sadness and loss they are feeling, compounded by guilt over not enjoying the things they always enjoy and not appreciating the people who are still around them.
Coping with change, parties, and activities can be exhausting and overwhelming, but it is possible to start to enjoy life again even when you've lost someone dear to you.
Reclaiming Christmas Joy When You're Grieving
In the Bible, Nehemiah was grieving his beloved city, Jerusalem. The Jews had been exiled to Babylon and Persia and, though some had been given permission to return to their homes, many remained in exile. Nehemiah was a servant in Persia when his story began.
Nehemiah learned that the walls of Jerusalem were little more than heaps of stones. The city gates had been burned, and there was nothing left.
The joy of the Lord is my strength. -Nehemiah 8:10
What was the first thing Nehemiah did? He prayed and fasted.
When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. -Nehemiah 1:4
So what should you do to restore your Christmas joy?
- Pray. Fast if you feel led. Your feelings won't change overnight, but you will eventually heal. Your life won't be the same as before; it will never be the same. But you will heal, and the hole in your heart will get smaller with time.
- Give yourself permission to enjoy the holidays. Yes, your heart is broken. Your loved one is gone. Nothing can minimize that or change it. However, you still need - yes, I said need - to be in touch with the beautiful and wonderful and joyful parts of your life. God wants the best for you. He wants to comfort you. You won't feel joyful every day, but when you're having a good day, let yourself embrace the good things in your life.
- Acknowledge that the holidays are going to be different this year. They will be different. There's nothing you can do about that. You probably don't like the changes, but you also can't make them different. Accepting this will help your heart tremendously.
- I sought grief counseling about 18 months after my mother died. I realized I couldn't handle it on my own, and my grief was enveloping my days. That helped tremendously as well.
- Remember your loved one with a Christmas ornament. Every year, Hallmark puts out a beautiful white ornament to commemorate those we've lost. The year my mom died, it was a sand dollar, and I bought one for myself and each of my sisters. That ornament is precious to me, and every year when I hang it up, I think of her and how much she loved Christmas and would have enjoyed celebrating another Christmas with us. You can also get a beautiful ornament on Etsy. There are hundreds of them there.
- Create a new tradition in honor of your lost loved one. Maybe, like my mom, she loved flowers, and you decide to get a beautiful floral centerpiece every year to remember her. Maybe there's something else that will make you remember her fondly.
- Burn a candle for her. I love candles. They are calming and warm. I especially love Yankee Candles and this one is one of my current favorites.
- Feel your feelings. Sometimes we try to distract ourselves from our grief in an effort to make ourselves feel better, but if there is one thing I learned in grief counseling, it is that the only way to the other side of grief is to slog through it one day at a time. When you feel sad, don't try to do something to feel un-sad. Just be sad. Think about the person you loved and talk about her. Cry. Journal. Explore your feelings. BUT -
- Don't dwell on your feelings. There's a fine line between feeling your feelings and wallowing in your feelings. You do need to explore them to feel better, but you also need to eventually move on. It doesn't mean you're forgetting your loved one; it just means that you're remembering yourself.
- Be grateful. I've written before about gratitude journaling. Focusing on what you're grateful for, especially in this season of loss and pain, is profound. It will change you. It will help you to focus on what you have instead of what you lost. It will help you to find joy in the midst of your pain.
- Praise God. This goes along with gratitude journaling, but remember to praise God for who He is and for sending His Son. Be thankful for the Great Comforter and allow Him to wash over you with His peace. He is a good God, and He has a great plan in this even though you are feeling too much pain to understand it right now. I have found in my own life that I have been able to help friends deal with the loss of their mothers thanks to that experience. I wish it had never happened. I wish she was still here. But the fact is that almost everyone will lose her mother at some point, and I know how that feels and can help relieve the pain a little.
- Receive comfort. Let other people help you. Talk to them about your loved one. Remember her with others who loved her. Enjoy the people who want to cheer you up and the holiday events that you used to like. I have another post coming this Friday about ways to comfort a grieving heart. Take a look at those, and ask people around you to help you in those ways.
- Volunteer. Help others. Perhaps your motivation is purely selfish, to feel better yourself. But if you can find it in yourself to genuinely care about the people or animals or cause you're helping, I promise that it will life up your own heart.
- Adopt a family in honor of your loved one. If your loved one really loved Christmas (like my mom did), perhaps adopting a family - or even just buying for an angel tree - would be a nice way to remember her. You can often find families in need through local churches or schools.
- Only do what you feel up to doing. Don't allow yourself to feel pressured to partake in every holiday celebration. If you don't feel like attending a party, don't. If you are overwhelmed by the holidays, bow out of some things and don't feel like you have to give an excuse. Just say "I don't feel up to it," or "I'm sorry but I can't." No guilt. BUT -
- Fake it until it feels better. Counselors will tell you that sometimes you have to fake feeling better, and that feeling better will eventually come. You may not be at this point yet, and that's totally okay. But if you are starting to have some better days, you could try this a time or two and see if it helps.
- Decide which traditions you want to keep and which you want to change. Sometimes, doing things the way you've always done makes your pain worse. For me, that's how Thanksgiving felt. We had always hosted Thanksgiving, and my mom always came over early to make the gravy for dinner. After she was gone, I just couldn't handle it without her. It wasn't that we couldn't make our own gravy; we could. I just couldn't go through the whole thing without my mom. So we joined my in-laws at a buffet for a few years. You get to decide what you want to do, and don't let anyone pressure you or make you feel guilty for changing it up.
- Send a Christmas card to your loved one's special people who you wanted to keep in touch with. For example, my mom's best friend was very special to me. We keep in touch on Facebook now, but I'm sure she would appreciate a handwritten note from me to remind her of her friend.
- Look at old photos. Sometimes this makes me feel better, and sometimes it hurts like nothing else does, so only do it if it helps you right now.
- Be careful with food and alcohol. In our culture, it is totally normal to medicate ourselves with food (especially sweets) and alcohol, but neither of these things is healthy. If you're overeating because you're sad or drinking a lot or often because you're sad, it is probably time to see a counselor before this becomes a habit.
- Splurge on a gift for yourself. Again, no guilt. If you have the extra cash, buy yourself something nice that you've been wanting. Treating yourself nicely goes a long way in helping you to heal.
- Ask for help. If you've always hosted the meal, but you don't feel like it this year, ask for someone to replace you. Speak up for yourself. If no one offers to help you, don't be afraid to ask.
- Take some quiet time. You can't overestimate the importance of self-care. Whether you need to pray, write in your journal, talk to a friend, or just take a nap, make sure you have quiet time alone to process your feelings, especially during this busy holiday season.
Grieving hurts. Grieving during the holidays hurts more. There's no way around it, but there are ways that you can deal with your grief and start to enjoy your holiday.
What have you done to try to deal with your grief during the holidays?
Tara... thank you so much for this post... you helped me so much. Who knew that loss and grief would paralyze me so much... I still have to force myself this year to decorate... and it is only one week until Christmas Eve. Your 23 things are most helpful. May your Christmas be truly wonderful!
Tara Ziegmont says
Dawn, I’m so glad it was helpful to you. Grief is so hard, and you definitely aren’t going through it alone.
No, and it is good to know that although it never truly leaves completely, it will fade and become more bearable in years to come.