When my son was little and we would gather at my in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving, he always wanted to sit at the “grown-ups’ table” and I could understand why. His dad and two uncles were constantly cutting up so, yes, the grown-ups’ table was a lot more fun than the kids’ table, and being the oldest of the grandchildren, he knew he’d be the first to move up when the time came. The only problem was, he never realized what had to happen for him to advance in the holiday table scheme of things—there had to be a vacant chair—and a vacant chair meant someone who was usually there wasn’t.
That day finally came when his great-grandmother suffered a massive stroke and died a week later. Granted, that was in May, but it didn’t take long for the holidays to approach and the vacant chair, once so eagerly awaited by my son, was now dreaded by everyone in the family. My in-laws, however, realized that the “always had been” couldn’t be the “always will be” – and they expanded the grown-ups’ table so everyone could be seated in the same place. No more kids’ table and no realization on the part of my child as to how his wish had actually been fulfilled.
And that brings me to the point of this article—to which many of you may be saying, “It’s about time.” When there’s to be a vacant chair at your next Thanksgiving meal or an emptiness at your next family Christmas because someone you loved dearly is no longer here, how in the world are you supposed to make it through the day? The key is to remember that there really isn’t anything you have to do. You’re not required to cook a seven course meal for your family or decorate the whole house and attend multiple Christmas parties. You aren’t required to follow the traditions of years past—unless that’s really what you want to do. Some people find great comfort in the stability of traditions while others dread them and the memories they bring. How each person handles their grief during the holidays is up to that person and what they find comforting. Being someone you’re not and forcing yourself to endure the season for the sake of others is never a good idea, and this is one time where “fake it till you make it” will only make matters worse. So what is a workable solution to surviving the holidays when that’s the last place you want to be? It would be nice if there was one definitive answer that worked for everyone … but we all know things are never that simple. There are, however, some rules of thumb that might make it just the slightest bit easier.
1. Give yourself permission to say no. You don’t have to do everything. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t feel like it—and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.
2. Take one day at a time. It doesn’t help to borrow grief from the future or to project it there. Limit your thoughts about tomorrow to whether or not you wish to accept or extend an invitation—and remember, it’s all right to say no.
3. If at all possible, open your heart to others in pain. One woman whose son died several months before Christmas began baking cookies as the day approached. And she baked and she baked and she baked. And then she took them to people all over town that she knew were hurting in much the same way she was. At every house they talked and at every house she lost herself in the moment. The very act of helping others allowed her to experience the joy of giving at a time when she thought her world had ended. And with this simple act she received more comfort than she ever dreamed possible.
4. If the old traditions are too painful, start new ones. In an effort to satisfy her grandson after the death of her husband, one woman went ahead and put up her Christmas tree, but hung it upside down from the ceiling, symbolizing how she felt her world had been turned upside down—and when her grandson walked in and saw the tree of course the first question was, “Why?” So as the two of them lay under the tree, staring up at the ornaments hanging from its branches, they talked about her husband—his grandfather—about the good memories they had and how much they missed him. It became their “new tradition” and gave them the opportunity to face their loss—not ignore it or try to pretend it didn’t happen.
One of the most important things you can do during the upcoming holiday season is to take care of yourself, and the suggestions presented here will help you do just that as will finding someone with whom you can talk. Sharing your grief can lessen its burden and there are people who will understand your struggle and willingly listen. Remember—grief is painful but it is not eternal. There are just times that it seems that way.