The Thursday before Thanksgiving (that’s today, November 21) is Children’s National Grief Awareness Day, recognizing that the upcoming holiday season is especially difficult on grieving families.
Even though my mom died more than 30 years ago, the holidays are still difficult. Not horrible, I’ve managed to have some good times over the years, but my mom loved Christmas, and each time I decorate my tree with ornaments from my childhood– the clear glass ones my mother collected or the ones we made together–or hang tinsel on the tree “one strand at a time” as Mom always advised, her absence becomes a presence in my family room.
And as I bake Christmas cookies, using Mom’s recipes (also known as the Joy of Cooking’s recipes), rolling pecan balls, or dropping chocolate drenched chow mein noodle cookies onto wax paper, Christmas carols playing, a fire crackling, her absence becomes a presence in my kitchen.
Over the years the sadness has lessened, but there are other losses as well: Grandma died in 1994, Granddad in 2004, Dad in 2005… and there will be others, because whether we like to think about it or not, people keep dying, it’s part of life.
The first Thanksgiving, the first Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve after the death of a loved one can be especially challenging. How do you know which traditions to hold onto and which need to be re-created? How do you celebrate while at the same time honoring your loss, remembering your loved one?
The first Christmas after Granddad died, ten years after Grandma had died, our whole family went to Las Vegas. Grandma and Granddad’s house was where we usually celebrated Christmas, but the house didn’t feel very festive at that time and none of us had the energy to decorate or cook. So instead of pretending everything was the same, we did something completely different: shows, dinners, pink jeep tours, and even the movie Polar Express in 3-D.
After my dad died the following year my sister and I cashed in his frequent flier miles and flew to Hawaii where we have family friends (we lived there when we were young).
So we crashed someone else’s Christmas and enjoyed their family traditions! We had dinner at the Outrigger Canoe Club and participated in a gift card swap. We ate poke and shrimp, teriyaki plate lunches, malasadas, and swam in the ocean. We watched sunset over some beach every night.
Not everyone can jump on a plane to Vegas or Hawaii, but there are things you can do to make the holidays a little easier.
The holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations for everyone… so try to remember: perfection is unattainable. You will be sad, and it’s okay, and the most difficult moments will pass.
Do something symbolic or in memory of the loved one you lost: light a candle, make a special Christmas ornament, say a prayer. For me it is baking, and though it makes me sad sometimes I feel like I’m honoring my mother by continuing to use her cookie recipes (and my grandmother’s stuffing recipe).
Be patient with yourself and the rest of your family and try your best to take care of yourself physically: eat well, get good sleep, and of course exercise. This won’t make the sadness go away, but your body and mind will be better prepared to handle it.
Talk to each other about your expectations, and how you’ll handle the challenges and changes.
Make a new tradition: go to the movies, eat Chinese food, take the family on a walk, do a craft project together, clean the garage. (OK clean the garage doesn’t sound fun, but you get the idea).
And remember, it’s okay to have fun and laugh too. Enjoying life, enjoying time with your family and friends does not mean you didn’t love the person in your family who died.
(1) Christmas Crackers, available at World Market or Pier One, you crack them open and they pop and inside is a small toy, a joke, and a silly paper hat