Bracing for the Holidays

Celebrating the holidays after a loss can be done; it just takes some creativity.

For most teens, fall is a great time of year, full of new friends, exciting football games, homecoming, and the approach of big family holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's. All of that changes when someone you love dies.



Holidays are difficult to face in the first year after a loved one has died. This is because the memory of that person's role in these happy events is still so fresh. If you have had a death in your family, it may be difficult to walk the halls of your school and hear the excited plans of friends and classmates as they talk about trips, gifts, and the imminent arrival of friends and relatives. You may dread what friends will be asking about your own holiday plans.

Depending on your family's religious beliefs, some of the holidays coming up in these final months of the year may have great significance. The thought of such events occurring without that person you miss may be almost unbearable.

There are some things that you and your family can do to help ease your way through these first painful reminders of what you have lost. But first, there are two things you don't want to do, and that is to try to ignore or refuse to discuss these reminders. You'll only end up feeling miserable and lonely at a time when everyone else seems to be celebrating.

Knowing that you can't escape the holidays, the best thing you can do is meet them head-on. My first suggestion is that you have a family meeting to find out what others are thinking. Ask everybody to make a list of "What I do and don't want to do this year." Then compare your lists. Perhaps your family used to spend the holiday with relatives in another city. Your dad may not be up to it this year, but your mother may feel like not preparing a big dinner. A compromise might be for your family to go to some nice restaurant for dinner and then spend the weekend doing things together, like going to the movies or taking walks in the woods.

Your brother may still want the family to drive out to a tree farm to saw down a tree for Christmas, but your dad may not have his heart in it. If you are going to have a tree anyway, then a compromise would be for you and your brother to make the trip and for the others to attend to other details, like assembling the tree decorations.

One constructive way to avoid the painful reminders of happier times is to start new traditions and new rituals. After my husband died, we developed a new Thanksgiving tradition, one that we repeated for several years. We invited other people who were alone to join us-colleagues from work, friends and neighbors who had no special holiday plans of their own. Everybody brought something to eat or music to share, and our dreaded Thanksgiving turned into a heartwarming event full of meaning in the true sense of the holiday.

The loved one who died need not be excluded from your holiday plans. She will be on everybody's mind, no matter what, and it is better to acknowledge it. Here are some ideas on what you can do:

  • Create a large poster with her picture on it and invite people to write down their favorite memories of her. This poster can be framed and become a very special keepsake.
  • Decorate a box with holiday paper, make a slit in the top and set a stack of index cards next to it. As friends and family arrive, ask each one to write a memory on a card and put it into the box. At some preplanned time, the box can be opened and the cards read.

  • Buy a tank of helium and some biodegradable balloons, then invite family and friends to write messages on the balloons to your loved one. Take the balloons outside, clip the strings very short (to avoid attracting birds), say a prayer or sing a song, and let them go. Watching them rise can be a beautiful and moving experience.

  • Create a holiday niche in your home for your loved one or, perhaps, for all family members who have died. This could include pictures, a candle, a menorah, a cross, greens, or other decorations to make this a very special place, not only this year but on future holidays as well.

  • If you celebrate Christmas, you might suggest that friends and family members each contribute a small tree decoration that reminds them of your loved one. Discussion of what each person brought and why can be very meaningful.

  • At the main meal of the holiday, prepare something that was a favorite of your loved one and offer a toast to him.

  • Arrange for a special church or synagogue service in memory of your loved one. You might write something to read or have read at that service.

    There are times when the prospect of a holiday is so painful for everyone that your family will elect to get out of town for that period--someplace where there won't be so many memories of what used to be. I know of one family that decided to go to an island resort for Christmas. They had a good time and then returned to their regular traditions the next year.

    Using your creativity and working on this task as a family that loves and cares about each other, you may find that planning for the dreaded holiday will take the dread away and draw you all closer together.

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    Helen Fitzgerald
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