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When Grief Upends Your Holidays

Everyone has favorite memories of holidays past: Uncle Larry’s “toast of gratitude,” Grandpa carving the turkey, little Anna’s rendition of “Silent Night.” These moments sparkle in our memory banks and make us look forward to the next November or December, hopeful that we’ll get to bask in the same hilarity or sweetness again.

But what happens when they become memories interrupted? When you’ve lost a child, it can feel as if you’ve lost the most beautiful moments of the holidays. If your most cherished memory of  Thanksgiving was listening to your child explain the story of the Pilgrims’ encounter with the Native Americans or your favorite Christmas moment was watching your child’s delight at what Santa brought, the holidays can be fraught with emotion.

Your strongest instinct may be to cancel the holidays altogether and hide out. Eating frosting out of a can and crying over Hallmark movies sounds preferable to holding it together in front of family members you haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving. But you deserve to enjoy the holidays and seek happiness where you can find it, and there are a few ways to do that.

Start a new holiday tradition. If your biggest impulse is to throw in the towel, do so — by not doing what you’ve always done before. Rather than sit at the same table with the same food and stare at the empty seat that fills your every thought, change the dynamic. Push your family to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a soup kitchen. Start a new tradition of “adopting” a family in need for Christmas and buying the gifts on their wish list. Ask everyone to throw new dishes into the Hanukkah mix. If you’re used to celebrating Kwanzaa at home, add in ice skating or driving around to looking at lights. Mix up your usual plans so everything feels new, not just your grief.

Scale back your expectations. Are you used to making a huge spread of 14 different dishes, including a turkey and a ham? Recognize that that just might not be in your wheelhouse this year — and accept that that can be a good thing. Assign some dishes to other family members to contribute. Call a caterer to prepare what sounds overwhelming. Switch to easier sides that may include a boxed mix or a microwave. There’s no shame in simplifying things so you can enjoy yourself, and there’s no reason others can’t help you carry the load.

Focus on your favorite parts. Is the best part of Christmas planning the playlist for the family? Are you looking forward to stuffing yourself with all the Stove Top you can get your hands on? Do you love unearthing old family videos to watch, especially ones that feature your beloved child? Give yourself permission to notice only the things that bring you joy and ignore the rest. If Aunt Jackie and Uncle Hal are fighting for the 25th year in a row, go to another room. If the noise of the toddlers is too much for you, feel free to read in bed. You’re allowed to skip the hard parts in what’s already a hard holiday season.

Do some things on your own. If the holidays represent one of your only times to gain support from your extended family, take advantage. But if you really just want to leave the house and be by yourself for a while, ask family members to take care of your other children or help make meals while you catch a movie or go on a walk. Family members who care about you won’t begrudge you the opportunity to seek solace elsewhere when you can.

Honor your child. Some families choose to light a candle in memory of a child; others tell stories of funny or sweet things the child did. You may want to buy a memorial ornament to hang on the tree, make a special trip to visit him or her in the cemetery, or simply make a meal loaded with his or her favorite dishes. Ignoring the hole in your heart — and your family — won’t make the holidays easier, but acknowledging what’s missing may give you a moment of warmth that makes the rest less taxing.

The holidays are overwhelming for many people: Travel, family dynamics, and packed schedules can all take their toll. But add in the weight of grief, and the holidays can feel unbearable. Rather than throw in the towel and avoid the celebrations altogether, let yourself do what you need to so you can both participate and cope. The holidays may be different, but they can still be beautiful.

Gloria Horsley

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