The Holidays

The holiday season is a minefield for those who are grieving. It starts with Halloween. If it is your child who has died, there will be a gazillion inescapable triggers! If it’s your spouse who has died, you will have to figure out who’s going to give out candy while you, now a single parent, accompany your children as they trick-or-treat. ‘See what I mean? A minefield!

It continues with Thanksgiving. Because what ever on earth do you have to be thankful for when your heart’s been ripped from you?

Then, the Big Kahuna: Christmas. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s virtually impossible to avoid and ignore it in our culture. All the decorations! All the music! All the festivities! Ugh.

My first holiday season was less than 6 months after Julian died. I knew it was going to be a nightmare. I thought about what I might need from the people in my life to get through it all without completely losing it. So I composed a letter and sent it to everyone I knew. Literally, everyone.

It helped me to articulate some of what I was dreading in anticipation of this yearly season that carries such an emotional punch for those in the midst of grief. It was also helpful to figure out what I needed, and to actually ask for it.  The response from friends and family was truly heartwarming.

November 2010

Dearest Loved Ones,

My heart is heavy during this otherwise joyful season. As most of you know, earlier this year, I lost my only child, Julian, to suicide. This isn’t my first holiday season spent away from him (there had already been many of those), but it is my first holiday season without his aliveness somewhere on the planet. Which is energetically and emotionally very different from his spending Christmas with his Dad, or Thanksgiving at a friend’s.

I am doing little this year to engage in the hoopla of the holidays. So far, I have attended a few gatherings, which have turned out to be unexpected growth experiences. I mean, how do I answer that most tiresome of cocktail questions, “And so, what do you do?” when I’m in the process of re-imagining a future for myself that doesn’t include my son? 

I am still in a very “receiving” mode; I honestly don’t have the energy to give much of myself or of anything else this holiday season. I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve ever been needier. So here is what I need:

  • Don’t be afraid to speak with me about Julian. I still need very much to talk about him (and maybe you do too). It helps me maintain my sense of connection to him. I don’t ever want to lose that. So we don’t need to shy away from Julian or his death as topics of conversation. And he’s not all I want to talk about either!
  • Don’t be afraid of my tears. You don’t have to make it better; just breathe with me. I know it can be uncomfortable to be with another person’s pain, and that it can be a “downer,” especially at a time of year when we’re all supposed to be happy. But sadness is still a very real part of what I experience every day, and – if nothing else – I want to keep it real.
  • Do be grateful for your children – if you have them. And don’t be afraid to share with me how they are. Sure, it’s a reminder that my child is gone. But it is also a reminder that the “right order” of things (children outliving their parents) is still the norm. 
  • Don’t disappear. Some people say it’s the second half of the first year of grieving that is the hardest, because people will begin to retreat. “They’ll think you’re back on your feet, managing your life, getting on with it, and that you don’t need to be comforted any longer.” And all I can say to that is “Hogwash!” The need for connection and comfort is still huge. I’m not too proud to admit it.

Thank you for being a loving presence in my life. Peace to you and yours.

It’s been eight years. The holiday season still has its triggers for me. But I give out candy on Halloween even though it conjures memories of Julian dressed up as a pumpkin, a Power Ranger, a vampire, a San Francisco 49er’s fan, and so many other entertaining costumes over the years.

I express my deep gratitude for my son’s short life at Thanksgiving because although I hate that he died, I love, love, love that he lived. For Christmas I put out the hand-made decorations my son brought home from elementary school, plus the ones we worked on together at home that I’ve managed to save.

It’s all bittersweet: memories of cherished moments and wishing he was still here to make more of them. I don’t become a hermit, but I don’t play full out the way I once did. That’s what works for me.

Do whatever feels right for you and your family. Be willing to say “no” when others invite you to participate, even when they’re insistent. People think they’re “helping” when they do this. But only you know how much isolation is too much isolation, and how much is just right for you in this moment. The number one priority: take care of you. I won’t say “have a happy holiday season.” You don’t need that kind of pressure. Have a miserable, bawling-your-eyes-out holiday season if that’s what feels right.

Breathe. This season will pass. The leaves will fall. The cold weather will descend upon us. The Christmas trees will eventually appear, unadorned and forlorn, on the curb. A new year will start. You will find your way.

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