The Messy Art of Coping with Holidays After Experiencing a LossDecember 1, 2021
There are many parts of the grieving process that catch people off guard. But one thing that doesn’t is the expectation that holidays will be difficult after the loss of a loved one. And while it may seem like cold comfort, this can actually a positive thing, because people won’t be blindsided. And that means they can prepare.
“People tend to wisely anticipate that the holidays will be hard,” says Sairey Luterman, a Lexington-based therapist who specializes in grieving. “They’re just not sure how to get their hands around it.”
How can they. Luterman has worked with countless families over the years, and she suggests that families start by discussing in advance what the plan for celebrating the holiday should be. “Open the dialogue,” she says. This means talking in advance about what might be hard, and what might bring comfort, and what the day will involve, what the activities will be, and who will do what, and bring what. Plus, you’ll want to talk about the ways you can celebrate the person who is not there. Maybe you’ll sing his favorite holiday song, or make her favorite food. Maybe you’ll just light a candle and tell some stories. Small things can be very powerful.
That said, while it’s good to have a plan for the day, it’s also critical to build in a great deal of flexibility, because no one can really predict how the day will go, or what they will be feeling, or what they might struggle with. “Sometimes people will say, ‘Well, should we stick to exactly what we used to do?’” says Luterman. And that might be just the thing for that particular family. But sometimes recreating past holiday traditions starts to feel too hard, or forced, or family members feel that they’re just gritting their teeth and soldiering through.
“Have a Plan A, and a Plan B,” says Luterman. And even a Plan C. “That way, if you are going down, the road of ‘Christmas is exactly the same way it’s been for 30 years,’ and suddenly it’s Christmas Day, and everyone’s kind of limping along, and weepy, and miserable, you can just say, ‘Let’s all load into the car and go for a walk on the beach.’” You won’t be bound to a set plan that isn’t working.
Of course, neither planning nor flexibility can happen without a shared expectation that the holidays will be difficult. “Setting expectations is so important. Know that it’s going to be hard, that it’s going to be something to get through as best you can, and know to not have romantic ideas that it’ll be like it was,” Luterman says. Still, she adds, “I always try to open up the possibility that there will be glimmers of something lovely, that there might be flickers of joy. And that that’s okay, too.”