This year will be different. Your grief will be present, changing--possibly permeating--the way you feel about the holidays. And it will reshape your approach to them. You may find yourself wishing that the upcoming days would speed by as quickly as possible so as not to prolong your personal torment.
But you don't have to be the holidays' victim: there are ways to take the dread out of this celebratory period. Start by deciding that you will not just let the holidays happen to you. Instead, you'll exert some influence over them. You'll make the choice to arrange your activities this season to fit your mental and emotional needs.
First, accept that you're feeling challenged, that you have your limitations. As a result, you may not have the energy or the desire to follow all -- or any -- of the familiar traditions. You may not even wish to give them a try.
Next, talk over the situation with the friends or family with whom you usually share the holidays. Explore some ways you may want to change traditions. For example, you may still wish to host Christmas Eve dinner, but this year it can be a potluck instead of your sole responsibility. On Christmas Day, you might forego the usual visit to the neighbor's annual open house, and replace it with a brief visit to your loved one's grave. In this way, you can direct your grief. With a few other friends or family members, you can enjoy some moments of quiet meditation, share some thoughts about your loved one, shed some necessary tears, and place a seasonal wreath on the grave.
As you prepare to observe Hanukkah, you could set aside a quiet time to talk about the gifts your loved one passed on to you -- through example, love, encouragement or advice. You may gather together to read a letter or note written by him or share one of her favorite sayings, poems or songs.
When making your plans for the days ahead, you might also like to include an activity that is directly related to your loved one's interests. In this way, you can feel the comfort of experiencing something he would particularly admire or enjoy. One family, whose son had been a classical musician, celebrated their first Christmas after his death by attending a symphony concert together. A wife whose husband had always prided himself on being a gourmet chef prepared his favorite dishes and delivered them to their closest friends.
It is also gratifying and calming to honor your loved one by giving a special gift or donation in his memory. It can be a pleasant task to match the type of gift you give with the particular likes and fascinations of your loved one. Be imaginative. If your dad appreciated good theater, you might purchase a block of community theater tickets for a group of drama students at a low-income school. If your mother was very fond of pets, you could contribute a needed item to the SPCA, or volunteer your time for a month in your mother's memory. If your son was an enthusiastic member of the high school basketball team, you might set up a small annual award in his name so that the most improved player can be recognized by the coach and his teammates at the end of the season.
And, of course, you can always donate clothing, toys or books to any community organization that serves the needs of others. Or you may help the residents of a Women's Shelter by leaving individual gift bags of mini-sized lotions, shampoos and other toiletries that are necessary but costly. You may offer a computer, chair, or desk that you no longer use, to a halfway house for people who are working their way back into the community.
Another possibility: create a "memorial giving box" to deliver to a patient who will be spending the holiday in the hospital, a young parent who is struggling with insufficient income, or a senior citizen who would be otherwise forgotten. Sometimes it isn't necessary to think beyond the bounds of your own family to find someone whose holiday would be lonely and unhappy without your thoughtful surprise.
Throughout the entire holiday period, it may help to have an ongoing project, which you'll later share. This could be the time to create -- either by yourself or with others -- a scrapbook of your loved one's life, record your memories on tape, or collect his or her favorite stories.
And during this approach to the holiday, be aware of one of the most seductive pitfalls: trying to shop away your grief. Misdirected sorrow can be costly. After all the buying, the sadness will still be there when your wallet is empty.
A second caution: don't let guilt ride around on your shoulder telling you that you must do this or you should not do that. If you're unsure about which direction to take and are feeling unduly influenced by others, seek some solitude. Listen to your instincts. Let your heart guide you. If you discard or modify a familiar tradition, you don't have to think of the change as permanent. You may view the holiday differently next year -- because, again, you'll be in charge.
Most important, don't try to force yourself through the season with a steely posture and falsely celebratory spirit. Instead, let each difficult day hold the promise of remembrance, release and expression. Design the activities and events to be as meaningful and as stress free as possible. Acknowledge your loved one who is so deeply mourned, and give your emotions freedom. Talk about how you feel with those whose support and devotion you can trust.
Finally, check around to see if local community groups or churches have interfaith memorial services. (Your local hospice will usually know of such events.) These are often scheduled during the holiday season for grieving community members, giving them an opportunity to honor and remember their loved ones through ceremony and music. Such gatherings are particularly healing. They can nourish your spirit with the much-needed warmth of compassionate fellowship and light during this time of temporary darkness.