Planning for the Holiday Season After a Loss

After my brother passed away last fall, celebrating the upcoming holidays was the last thing on our minds. I don’t remember exactly what we did last year; we were so focused on getting through the first few months after his death.

This year will be different. While we’re all still very much grieving, we are starting to feel like we’re not living in a survival mode quite as much. We expect the holidays to be hard, but we also have plans for a couple enjoyable get-togethers with our close families.

Thinking ahead to the holiday season, it’s been hard to start making decisions about planning family get-togethers without my brother. It’s honestly difficult to know how we will all feel during our get-togethers and if it will really be possible to have a good time and honor him in the process. Here’s what I’m learning about the difficult task of planning for the holiday season after a loss.

Keep it simple

The first few holidays after a loss probably aren’t going to be the right time for going all out. Keeping busy might seem like a good way to avoid the difficult emotions associated with grieving during the holidays, to distract yourself from the pain. However, for me, that isn’t the healthiest choice. I know there is a big difference between planning for a manageable holiday season and an easy holiday season— and there still needs to be space to process my emotions and honor my brother.

This means I’ll be keeping it simple this year. My husband and I will be focusing most of our energy on being with our kids. We’ll also be limiting extra activities as much as possible, sticking with one event for each side of the family. This will give me the downtime to take care of myself, be with my mom and my remaining siblings, and reserve as much emotional energy for my kids and husband as possible.

Take care of yourself

Planning the time for self-care isn’t enough, I know that I need a real plan for how I will make sure I’m getting my needs met as we navigate a difficult season as a family. I know that I have the tendency to drop even the most basic of self-care tasks when I get busy or overwhelmed.

So, as we start shopping for gifts and penciling in dates for family get-togethers, my husband and I have begun to talk about how I will make sure I’m getting a chance to keep caring for myself. I’m protecting my sleep schedule, something I know is so important to feeling well. I’m planning ahead to get some exercise each day, even when the weather is cold because I know it helps me to manage my anxiety well. I’m also building in plenty of downtime for rest and solitude and scheduling a few maintenance visits with my therapist before the season arrives.

How do you honor lost loved ones during the holidays?

Practice remembrance with care

Whether it’s planning the menu or activities for each family get-together, it can be comforting to plan to honor your lost loved one in some way. The more I’ve thought about this the more I’ve realized that this is something that has to be planned with care. It might turn out that not everyone in the family wants to be reminded of their loss at every turn.

For this reason, I’m planning to make one of my brother’s favorite desserts, it’s an Oreo cake we’ve eaten for years, for just my immediate family and me. If other family members would like to honor my brother in some way, I will leave that up to them to talk over with each individual family member who will attend to gauge their comfort level.

And because there are certain traditions that might feel uncomfortable or painful to continue after a loss, I think it’s a good idea to create new traditions as a family. My family has decided to try fondu in place of the traditional holiday meal my brother loved so much. This isn’t about forgetting or moving on, it’s more about honoring how painful continuing old traditions can be when the person you love is no longer a part of your life.

I’m not sure what this will look like for our family this year since low-key holidays have been pretty standard for us for quite some time. Last year, we waited to open presents until the weekend after the holiday — opening them on Christmas without my brother just felt too hard.

There is no question that a holiday without a loved one is difficult. It’s a season for family, and grieving complicates and adds pain to just about every aspect of these big days. Be patient with yourself and your family members and keep expectations low, giving yourself the grace to learn how to move forward over the coming years.

Originally published on December 4, 2018.

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