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The Empty Seat at the Holiday Table

Family Holiday“Thanksgiving arrived just a few weeks after my husband died.”

Happy families, togetherness, celebration and joy are just some of the expectations of the holiday season.  These are the images surrounding us online, in movies, on TV and in our own memories, if we’re lucky. Yet, it’s hard for most families to live up to these images, even under normal circumstances. 

So, what happens when we are grieving the loss of a cherished relationship, a marriage or worse—the death of someone dear?  Personal losses become magnified at this time of year when we’re supposed to be happy, which can leave us feeling alone and depressed. When a loved one has died, their missing chair at the holiday table may seem like more than we can handle. 

“Getting together without him was just too painful for me to deal with. I felt guilty about disappointing our children and grandchildren, but I just wasn’t up to it.”

“So, how can I get through the holidays?” 

There is no magic formula.The first holiday season after the death of a loved one is difficult.  One important guiding principle is to be gentle with yourself and do what is comfortable. Whatever your situation, these suggestions may be helpful.

  1. Plan for the approaching holidays.

Recognize that the holidays won’t be the same. Accepting this will help you manage expectations. Especially the first year, doing things a bit differently can help—preparing different menus, changing decorations, attending a different service, celebrating in a different location or volunteering.

“For Christmas, we decided to go out for Chinese food and a movie. That was certainly a departure for us, but we were grateful to be together without the pressure and expectation to act whole and happy when we weren’t.” 

  1. Be aware that your feelings of grief will still be there and take time out to honor your loved one.

Create a memory box. You can fill it with photos, written memory notes or drawings by the children in the family.

Share a prayer, a poem, a moment of silence or a special toast before the holiday meal.

Tell funny stories about the times you shared.

Place an ornament on the Christmas tree or hang a stocking in their honor.  Family members can stuff the stocking with their remembrances, thoughts and feelings.

Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in their memory.

  1. Surround yourself with people who love and support you

Decide what you can handle comfortably and let family and friends know. 

  1. Avoid additional stress.

Set realistic expectations for yourself and re-examine your priorities. Perhaps cards don’t need to be sent this year or your gift list can be trimmed. Take others up on their offers to help cook, shop, decorate, etc.

  1. Go outside.

Studies have shown that exposure to sunlight is effective in relieving depression. Add some exercise to your week.

  1. Draw comfort from doing for others.

Consider giving a donation or gift in memory of your loved one. Invite a guest who might otherwise be alone for the holidays. Or volunteer to brighten someone else’s holiday.

  1. Don’t be afraid to have fun.

Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one. Give yourself (and your family members) permission to celebrate and take pleasure in the holidays.

  1. Skip it.

If you feel that it will be too much for you and you’d like to simply opt out of holiday plans, let family and friends know. Plan alternative comforting activities for yourself and let someone know what you will be doing. 

Remember, anticipation of any holiday is usually worse than the actual day. 

While we feel loss very deeply, death does not mean the end of a relationship. During the holidays and throughout the year, we keep our loved ones alive as we remember them, their love and the joy we shared. 

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If you need some help coping with loss during the holidays or any time of year, call Trustbridge Bereavement Centers at 888.499.8393 or visit www.trustbridge.com/services/grief-support. You’re not alone. We’re here to help.