This will be the most difficult holiday season of my life. I lost my dad in July 2017 after a 62-day battle with stage 3 lung cancer. My mother passed away 17 years ago this month. My father-in-law also died 10 years ago this month and two of my three siblings are celebrating the first birthdays without my dad, you guessed it: this month. It is a confluence of all things crappy.
This Christmas is the first without either parent in my life. If I could skip it altogether, I would. I wouldn’t put up a tree, buy gifts or decorate for the Holiday. But, I am a mom. I have two little boys who are 7 and 8. Skipping Christmas is not an option. So, I dug out the décor, shopped online for gifts, and battled the tree into submission—all the while harboring a heavy, broken heart.
As I thought more about how to make it through this rough time AND maintain my emotional health, I came up with 5 steps to help me maintain my resilient nature through this holiday season. I decided to share it after my mother in law commented to me something quite profound: “It is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone, every year.” She is right. I am hopeful that if you find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of relating to this post, that you, too, can use these steps in your own life to help make it through this time.
1. Acknowledge the DIFFICULTY of this situation. Accept that this is not easy and there is no “fix it” you can rent or buy that will make everything okay. There’s no seed to plant to bring your loved one back. It sucks. And it will be hard. Really, really hard. What you are facing with this loss and this empty hole is exceedingly difficult. Talk to yourself like a friend and remind yourself when things get overwhelming that “this is really hard.”
2. Create your OWN DEFINITION of success this holiday season. Be realistic. What you see on TV, in commercials, in the Hallmark made-for-tv movies is NOT real. You’ve lost someone. You are hurting. If, for you, success means not punching uncle Benny in the throat when he drinks a little too much Christmas Cheer and starts talking politics, so be it. If it is simply making it through the holiday without killing the damn cat because he keeps climbing the tree, so be it. The point is: YOU define success. Don’t let anyone else define it for you—whether that is their expectations of you or the perception of their expectations for you. YOU decide.
3. Give yourself SPACE to sit with grief. I admit, I hate this one. But it’s so very important for us to allow ourselves the room to cry, to be sad. Even in grief you can honor your loved one through remembering what was important to them. What they would say or do when confronted with situations you are dealing with. Honor their memory by being who you are. Authentically, without apology. My personality tends to be playful. I’m usually the one telling the lighthearted jokes when things get too serious, the one folks expect to speak the truth in a humorous way. And that is still me, but I’m not operating at full capacity right now, so my jokes are a little slower to make it past my lips. The fact that I’m grieving is not something to apologize for, it is simply a natural part of the human story. And as much as it sucks, I’m not going to ignore it.
4. Open your heart to JOY. I’m certainly not saying this is going to be your favorite Christmas ever—we both know that is impossible. What I’m saying is to give joy permission to show up. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to feel something other than grief, no matter how fleeting. I don’t mean trumpet-sounding, parting-of-the-clouds-and-angels-singing kind of joy, I mean look for the small, simple moments of peace—whatever that is for you. Notice them. Allow them to bring a small bit of joy to you in a dark time. I have a dear friend who recently lost her mother and she mentioned to me that she was having a hard processing what she was feeling after getting some especially great news about a pregnant relative. Then it hit her: joy. She was joyful for her sweet young relative to welcome new life into the family. It had been so long since she had felt joy, she almost didn’t recognize the feeling.
5. PREPARE for the inevitable “how’s it going?” questions. They will ask. I promise you, they will ask. Decide now how you want to answer. I tend to be the type of person whose first instinct is to answer “great!” or “good!” no matter how I’m feeling. But that’s a lie. I am NOT “great” OR “good,” this holiday season, I’m really sad. But a greeting upon seeing someone for the first time in a long time is NOT the best time to say “well, my dad died this year so I’m pretty wrecked.” Although, that is frank and honest, you may find an alternative answer to a casual greeting like “I’m looking forward to the new year” to be a more appropriate response. Save the details for a later conversation after they’ve had a chance to remove their coat and greet the rest of the family. But come up with something that is also honest and frank, but doesn’t deflate the room the instant they walk through the door.
I’ll end with this: JOY IS COMING. For all of us. How can I say that confidently? Because I’ve been through hard things before and joy DOES come back. Eventually. Maybe not when I want it (right NOW, please!), and maybe not in the way I expect it, (What do you mean, I’m pregnant?*), but just as the sun has a sunrise AND a sunset, life offers both joy AND pain.
I hope you’ll look for joy this holiday season, despite the ache inside. It may be a warm tea, a good book, a fluffy blanket, and a free afternoon to enjoy all three at once. I wish you my very, very best.
[*note: I had two unexpected pregnancies that turned into the greatest joys of my life and NO, I am NOT pregnant now].