Last voicemails, hairbrushes, pipes, and calendars.
There’s a chair by the fireplace. It’s warm and cozy and has a great view of the rest of the house. My grandfather liked to sit there with a good glass of Scotch. From there he could hold court, laughing and joking with family and friends. He could watch his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lovingly teasing us and regaling us with stories.
This year, that chair will be empty. For the first time, my grandfather will not be there to celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t seem real. You can understand loss logically; you can comprehend that the loved one is gone, and will not be coming back. But part of you still expects to see them: at the table, in the kitchen making his famous lasagna, and by the tree opening presents.
The first holiday after losing a loved one is a surreal and often painful experience. There’s a paradox between wanting to celebrate the holidays while still suffering the loss of someone important. Finding the balance is tricky—and in some cases, can feel impossible.
Traditions can be a source of comfort during the holidays; after losing a loved one, they can be painful.
While the season’s celebrations may not come easily for you this time around, there are ways to get through the holiday. Here are some steps that can help make that first holiday after the death of a loved one a little easier to bear:
1. Decide what’s right for you
Traditions can be a source of comfort during the holidays; after losing a loved one, they can be painful. Only you can decide if keeping traditions will help or hinder your healing process. But keep in mind: ignoring the holidays entirely may not help.
“It’s a big mistake to try and avoid the holidays completely; you can’t,” says Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D. and author of “Grief is a Journey”. “You can’t run away from them. At the same time, you can’t go full speed ahead, because things have changed.”
The best option is to find a balance between old traditions and new ones. Doka suggests making small changes, “hold a toast or light a candle in honor of the missing loved one.”
2. Be honest
You might feel tempted (or even obligated) to put on a happy face during the holiday season. Experts believe this is the wrong route to take and can end up doing more harm than good.
“For many, getting through the first holiday is a major challenge,” explains Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., social psychologist and blogger at PsychologyToday.com. “If the holidays were always shared with the loved one, and a whole pack of other rituals surrounded this time of year, then enduring the holiday is just that: an endurance contest.”
The first holiday after losing a loved one is a surreal and often painful experience.
Be open and acknowledge your grief. Reach out to friends and family about your situation. You don’t have to pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t.
“There’s a loss that no one wants to acknowledge,” says Doka. It’s the elephant in the room … You need to just acknowledge it.”
3. Take it easy
It would be great if there was a roadmap for grief, but it’s different for everyone. Even close families members will react to the same loss in different manners.
“Each person’s response to a traumatic loss is different,” agrees Perry. “Some people think of the year or two following a loved one’s death as a healing journey. Others, like the comedian Patton Oswalt, insist it’s a ‘numb slog.’”
Read more: How to provide comfort during tragedy
If things start to overwhelm you this season, that’s normal. Determine how much family cheer you can handle, and how much time you want to spend on your own recuperating.
“You may be able to cope better if you limit the socializing, and plan ahead to have a good book or film or meal waiting for you when you return home,” advises Perry.
Whatever self-care works best for you, now’s the time to use it. Be mindful of what helps you get through difficult times. Practice some quiet meditation to keep yourself centered. There’s no shame in needing a little downtime during the holidays, particularly when you’re grappling with a loss.
4. Remember the good times
My grandfather was an epic storyteller. He could entertain us for hours. He was one of the smartest and most interesting people I’ve ever met. And he loved stories. Now that he’s gone, those stories mean more than I can say. And this holiday season, I intend to keep that going.
Losing a loved one is never easy, and the fallout can register is unexpected ways.
Sharing memories of the loved one can be an enormously cathartic experience. You not only keep them alive in your memories, you can learn things about them you never discovered while they were here. It’s a way of keeping them in the family and passing those tales on to the next generation.
There’s still a chair by the fireplace. It will be empty this year. But there’s a way to accept that loss and still celebrate. Losing a loved one is never easy, and the fallout can register is unexpected ways. But with a little effort (and maybe a few tears), the holidays can still be celebrated instead of simply endured. Light a candle, raise a glass, tell a story—do whatever you need to make these holidays right for you.
Artwork by KYLE BECK