Grief is heavy, no more so than during the holidays. The “most wonderful time of the year” may not feel so wonderful when you’ve experienced the loss of your child. I remember the dread of anticipation with the arrival of the holiday season and the panic about how to navigate it without causing undue mental anguish for myself and disappointing my family and friends. After many years of getting it wrong, I learned a few ways to gear up for the holidays, put boundaries in place to protect my energy and mental health, and work my way through triggers and anniversaries without completely falling apart. Well… most of the time. Here are my top 5 tips to gearing up for the holidays as a Grief Warrior:
- Have a plan. Do you really want to be at Aunt Millie’s house all day and night on Christmas and Christmas Eve? Or could you possibly skip part (or ALL) of that this year? Do you want to go out of town and have time alone with your spouse or choose Friendsgiving with a few close friends rather than Thanksgiving with your family of 35? Holidays after grief, for me, were challenging. Especially due to the close proximity of Caleb’s birthday to Christmas. I’ve talked about it before but the greatest gift I was given after Caleb died was the way in which my in-laws handled Christmas that year. No decorations, no traditional food, no expectations. Just the four of us sitting around a small, white tree (my MIL, Judy, called it Caleb’s tree) and we held space for our grief, our exhaustion, and silence when no words would come. No matter how you want to spend the holidays, determine where you want to be, who you want to be with, and what that looks like.
- Communicate your plan: Halloween is my biggest trigger. This isn’t a holiday that has ever meant much to me once I stopped trick or treating, so I was surprised at the magnitude this holiday affects my grief and the constant triggers that abound. Until the last few years, my husband and I would keep our light off, go to a loooong dinner and not come home until well past trick or treating hours. Once I figured out that Halloween sent me down a rabbit hole of emotions, I simply told my husband that I couldn’t be home and put a smile on my face to greet littles with candy. I just didn’t have it in me. He quickly agreed with me and, thus, our tradition of hiding out began. Communicating your needs, your feelings, and your plan is important to eliminate the element of surprise for the other people in your life. Front loading is a concept whereby you get out in front of something – you’re proactive and put work in on the front end so you have less to deal with on the back end. By front loading your holiday plan it allows you to manage the expectations others may have from past holidays.
- Include your baby: Including your baby in the holidays is a personal decision and the way in which you do so may take time to cultivate. For my husband and I, we set up a few traditions over the years such as reading the 5 candle memorial before every holiday meal and having our family members write Caleb a letter for his Christmas stocking. We also have chosen a child Caleb’s age to buy Christmas gifts for, donated to The Beautiful Scar Project and other Charitable organizations in his name, and placed stockings for each of our angel babes on our mantel. We get a new ornament for them each year and visit the cemetery on Christmas Eve to read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Some families volunteer at a charitable organization in honor of their baby or leave one seat at the table empty in honor of their presence. However you choose to honor your baby during the holidays, do what feels best and most meaningful to you.
- Have an exit strategy: My husband and I are a big fan of the code word. Before we head into any social situation (even to this day) we decide on a word that, when spoken, tells the other that it’s time to make our exit. This isn’t because we don’t enjoy being social, but we’ve learned over the years that unexpected triggers can pop out of nowhere so it’s best to be prepared if that occurs. Code words and sitting in the back of the room are the two ways we typically prepare for our exit strategy. If it’s an event that we aren’t particularly thrilled about attending, we may add a time limit as part of our exit strategy and there have been more than one occasion where we’ve kept a close eye on that clock. Having an exit strategy can help you feel more at ease and feel more in control in case a trigger emerges out of no where.
- Don’t “should” all over yourself: I’m a recovering people pleaser so guilt and “shoulding” on myself are things I’m very familiar with. “Shoulding” refers to feeling like you “should” be doing this, or not doing that. It’s feeling guilty for putting your needs first, rather than dutifully fulfilling the expectations of others. Feeling guilty about not observing normal traditions, feeling obligated to attend more functions than I had the energy for, and spending time in ways that didn’t honor my grief well were things I put a stop to pretty quickly. I think Caleb made me brave because for the first time in my life, I began to use boundaries and used them to honored my grief. Example: For many years after Caleb died I would escape to the mountains on Mother’s Day with my husband and hide from the world. I would send the “Happy Mother’s Day” texts to the important mamas in my life and then shut off my phone, climb into a hotel bed with the emptiest of empty calories and watch tv and sleep. I’m sure it was a hard adjustment for my mom, sister, and mother in law but they all respected and encouraged whatever I needed to do to care for myself. Any guilt I felt that first year had dissipated by year two and I knew I was doing what was best for me during that season of my grief journey. You need to do what’s best for you in this season – sometimes that means disappointing people or even making them upset. Nevertheless, surviving the holiday season is personal and you need not feel guilty for nurturing your tender heart a little extra.
These are but a few ways that have worked for me to gear up for the holiday season. As your grief journey evolves, so may your strategies for navigating it. And that’s ok too- what works for you now may not work five years from now. Frontloading the holiday season won’t eliminate triggers or the ache that is ever present from missing your beloveds. It can, however, help to soften the season to where you don’t feel as battered or bruised come New Years Day. You’ve got this, Grief Warriors. And #teamTBSP is walking with you each step of the way.