Holidays are wonderful times of the year, for most. For widows, it’s often a different story. Pain, stress, and anxiety start building sometimes weeks before the holiday. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are often the most challenging because they are so deeply rooted in long-standing traditions and family togetherness. As if that were not enough, it just so happens they all fall within a short period (about 5 weeks). That is tough to get through when you are living life and are relatively happy. When you are broken on the inside, the holidays are torture.
After Randy died, I always felt like my past, present, and future had been ripped out from under me. For a long time, events with family and friends, amplified those feelings. When holidays came around, even years later, I felt like I had been robbed of what once was my favorite part of the year.
Just like every other important aspect of this new life—I had to rebuild holidays and turn them into something I could do—without him. I wanted him here to celebrate like always—to bother me incessantly until I wanted to strangle him because I couldn’t get anything done. But, that wasn’t an option; next best thing seemed to be lying in bed, staring at a wall, and crying until there were no more tears. When the tears stopped, I thought I’d still lie there, wishing I could cry again. I knew better. I knew that option wouldn’t work–I have kids. I had to figure something out and quick because I could feel the panic attacks returning.
I am not an expert on grief nor do I have a license to counsel anyone. All I have to share is how I felt, how I attempted to correct it, and how it all turned out. This isn’t meant as a feel good plan for the holidays. This is a guide for surviving the holidays. I want to share my successes and failures in hopes that your journey is easier than mine. I never want you to feel like you are in this alone.
So the question is, exactly how do you get through this season of holidays?
Holiday and tradition go hand in hand. Traditions created generations ago still live on today. Traditions are comforting because they remind us of all the good times we had. When you have experienced loss, traditions are reminders of what will never be again. That first Christmas, there were things I just could not make myself do. I just didn’t have the energy or strength to get through it. There were no cookies—I barely got through buying and opening gifts. I literally thought I might break in half because it just broke my heart to do it alone. It broke my heart to watch the kids do without him. I was a mess.
There were traditions that fell away. There were traditions that seemed to stick more than ever. And, there were traditions that began that very first Christmas and continue today. I realized that I had to create traditions that I could manage because the kids were counting on me to hold them up.
The first tradition we began was something we had watched my grandma do when Grandpa died: A dove placed in one of his funeral arrangements was given to us. Every Christmas, Dad placed that dove on our Christmas tree. It made us feel like we always had a piece of him with us. Even more importantly, it kept his memory alive in us. So, when Randy died, I took the birds from the funeral arrangements and did the same; each child had their own bird to place.
The kids always made gifts for others. That first year, this became even more important to them. We still take time to make gifts for family members. I am still convinced that the only way to feel better about your tragedy is to care and give to others, which is why we also started adopting a family for Christmas. The first couple of years, I had friends who were struggling, so I would secretly go out and buy toys, foods, and gift certificates. Late in the evening, I would drop the package on their doorstep with an anonymous note. I didn’t provide everything they needed—I couldn’t, I didn’t have the means. I did what I could and made a valiant effort to include the kids in the giving. We don’t do it on the scale we used to, but we still do support part of a family every year.
No matter how many people are in the room with you, you will probably feel completely alone. Many of your friends and loved ones will be there, perhaps with their significant other. Chances are, you will be thinking of little more than what is missing this year. That’s okay. More happiness will sneak in than you can imagine right now.
I wish a magic cure existed to that make all of those feelings go away. I wish I could tell you that if you just go and try it will work. Unfortunately, it isn’t true. The only solace I can offer, is if you are at home, you are alone—just you and your pain.
If it were me, I would go be with friends. I won’t be your most exciting and happy adventure, but at least you won’t be alone. You might even find yourself wanting to smile once or twice. Go ahead and do it, it will feel good.
Don’t give into guilt.
Guilt can, and will, overwhelm you if you give it a chance. If you feel like you need to go to lunch and a move with your best friend—go! If you see someone do something that is funny—laugh! If shopping makes you feel alive—shop! If a massage would make you feel more relaxed, if only for an hour—get one! If you are with family and friends during a holiday get together and you feel happy for ten minutes—feel it! It is okay—in fact, it is great!
Don’t think about it and let guilt seep in. Don’t wonder who is watching. Don’t care about how it looks to outsiders. Chances are, no one is watching and if they are, they are probably in awe of your strength. Don’t wonder if you are meeting the timeline for widows because there is no timeline. It isn’t as if you grieve for 6 months you are all done. Or if you grieve for two years then it’s out of your system. It isn’t like that. Some days you will feel okay and some days you will not feel okay. That is normal. At first, the days will be more bad than good and then it will slowly switch spots and it will do it in your time—no one else’s.
Gossip and worry.
You are probably the talk of your family circle and social circle; I’m sure that isn’t a shock. I am sure they talk and compare notes to make sure you are doing okay. It worries you that if you face everyone, they will talk to you about what happened or ask how you are. It’s almost easier for them to keep talking with each other and leave you out of it. If they ask you, you might feel obligated to say you are doing okay, even if you aren’t.
Worse yet, someone might try to tell you how you should feel, even if they have never been a widow. Plan for it. One or more of these things will probably happen; brace yourself, but do not let it keep you from your family. Most people have the good sense to keep talking about you behind your back. Some will be so bold as to ask these questions and more. That is okay, you can handle it.
Some just have no idea the type of pain it might cause to ask. To them, it’s a simple point of curiosity. For others, you represent their worst nightmare and they are genuinely concerned how you could handle such a life altering event and still function. And still a few might feel like you would be upset if they just ignored the fact you are now a widow.
There is no right or wrong way to handle this situation. I didn’t (and still don’t) always handle the questions the same way. My response depends on the type of day I am having and the way the question was delivered.
I will say, it is easier for me to discuss the issue with someone else, than it is to sit alone with it at night. I don’t sugar coat it and I don’t simplify it. I am honest and up front. After all, they asked. If they wanted bull, or if they wanted to hear something that makes them feel better about the situation, then they asked the wrong girl. Dishonest conversation is nothing more than wasted time.
Now, I didn’t always tell them what they wanted to know. Sometimes I might tell them my head is spinning so fast I can’t really put words to it. Or maybe I would tell them I needed some time before I could talk about it because I just wasn’t ready. The only obligation I felt was to myself and my kids.
Don’t feel obliged to seem okay with the question if you are not. Don’t feel like you should say you are okay if you are not. Don’t feel you have to divulge your every emotion or thought because someone asked for it. Your pain, your comfort level, your time.
Now, when it came to people, adults or children, talking to my kids, I listened carefully. I watched my kid’s reactions. More often than not, my children gave concise answers without a moment’s hesitation. It was truly amazing. If I felt like they were struggling or didn’t want to answer or were not sure how to answer, I’d step in and be a firm boundary for them.
Whatever worries you about the holidays and family events don’t let it keep you isolated and alone. If you put off this holiday, it puts more pressure and more anxiety on the next holiday or event. And if you avoid that holiday, then the next becomes even more intense and stressful. It is a snowball and when that snowball hits the wall, it will explode.
Instead of putting it off and letting it build up, approach the holiday season with care. There are several things you should do to survive the holidays: Know where you stand and be willing to take part. Set a boundary for yourself (a limit) and use it when you need to. Carry with you an open heart and an open mind. Don’t expect too much from family and friends—or yourself for that matter. It is hard for you and hard for those who love you. There is definitely a learning curve—no better time to learn than now.