Guest post: Grief and the Holidays: How to survive when you don’t feel like celebrating

The following is a guest post from my friend and grief counselor, Patty Behrens. Her insight and encouragement has carried me these last three years since my husband’s death. I love the way she reaches out to people navigating loss,  especially young widows. She facilitates a young widows group I have been a part of called Gals in Growth (GIG) that meets monthly in Fresno.

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“The ‘Merry’ in Christmas and the ‘Happy’ in New Year just doesn’t seem to fit this year.”

Those words were the first line of my very short Christmas letter to family and friends 5 months after my husband died suddenly on a family vacation. I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I wanted to push the fast forward button to skip over the holidays and wake up in January. That was not going to be possible with three children anxiously awaiting the upcoming festivities of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Can you relate?

Our family of five loved the holidays with all the festivities and traditions of picking out a Christmas tree at a local tree farm. We’d run through the mass of trees hiding and chasing each other on our search for the “perfect” tree. Of course, my hubby was the one to cut the tree, get it secured on the car and bring it into the house for decorating. How was it possible to get through that tradition, not to mention the multiple others?

There was decorating the tree with each of our bags of special ornaments while Christmas music played in the background or lighting an Advent candle with a special dessert each week, delivering gifts and food to a needy family, having my in-laws over Christmas Eve for traditional homemade German food and my husband reading the Christmas story while the kids played the various parts, and eating our special homemade raspberry almond coffee cake with a candle lit as we sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

It was impossible to replicate any of these traditions because “he” was a vital part of all of them all.

We did survive although we certainly did not thrive that first holiday season. I tried the best I could to make things good for my precious children. But, I had to do some things differently. My sensitive daughter wanted to hang on to every tradition as I simply explained, “This year I can’t.”

We let some of those traditions go and others we tweaked a bit to ease the pain. We invited close family friends over for Christmas Eve along with my in-laws for our traditional German meal. That evening we spent the night at my sister’s home despite protests from my daughter. I could not bare the pain of waking up that Christmas morning without him.

I wish I could say that was a smart move; however, it brought some pain of its own. It was too different as we stepped into their traditions, which were far from our own. Christmas dinner at my mom’s house brought more distress as both my dad (who had died a year earlier) along with my hubby were missing. There was no mention of either of them. It was the classic “elephant in the room” scenario.

Back at our house, we reclaimed the day as each child lit a candle in memory of their dad. We snuggled on the couch to watch home videos of him. The memories came bursting forth with laughter and joyous comments as the videos played. We survived our first Christmas.

Our second Christmas was much better as I intentionally made some changes. We chose as a family which traditions and activities were important while other ones were let go. We still invited a family over for Christmas Eve, which started a new tradition for us.

We decided to stay home for Christmas morning to do our thing. We brought the “elephant” out of the room as we played home videos at my mom’s house which opened the door to laughter and precious stories of our loved ones. They were remembered.

Through this grief journey, God has taught me numerous, valuable lessons and even gave me a ministry of helping other widows in ways I had struggled. Care Connections was birthed in April of 2002 and continues today. We have monthly work days where workers do home projects at widows’ homes, including putting up Christmas lights, decorations and trees if needed, along with other home needs throughout the year.

My favorite work day of the year is December as families, singles and people of all ages gather to deliver over 150 gifts to widows and their children letting them know we care and are thinking about them. It’s a tradition for my family. There are also home projects being completed with several of them being Christmas related.

The work days provide monthly opportunities to connect with other families. Through the years, my children had male role models who taught them how to do various home tasks and operate power tools, (Yes, my son learned how to operate a chain saw!) At Care Connections, we all learn to serve others in need.

This year, why not join us? If you live in Fresno/Clovis, I invite you to come with your children or by yourself to Care Connections on December 2 as we once again deliver gifts to widows for a few hours in the morning. We meet at the back of the Bridge Church parking lot at 3438 E. Ashlan Avenue in Fresno at 8:30 am where you can join a work crew or a team delivering gifts. We all return for a delicious lunch at noon where stories of the morning are shared. It may not make the holidays pain-free but it will be one of those activities you will remember as being “good” and lifting your mood for that day.

There’s no magical way to fast forward through the holidays or remove the pain, but there are ways to have “moments of joy” where the pain is eased and to help make the holidays a little bit better. Click here for a guide to Survive the Holidays. For more tips on surviving and thriving through the holidays, sign up here to receive weekly encouragement during this holiday season.

Patty Behrens is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Fresno, California with specialties in grief, trauma and anxiety with a passion for helping others through their life struggles. She is founder and director of the Care Connections grief ministry, http://www.careconnectionshelp.com. To contact Patty or receive her more tips for surviving the holidays, go to www.counselingfresno.org

Photo Credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

About Dorina Gilmore

One Comment

  • NWWoman says:

    My guide? I do not do it. I do not do Christmas or Thanksgiving and ignoring it has truly helped. I am a widow. I have one son who is single and lives 2000 miles away. I’m in a new to me and itsy bitsy rural town. My husband died a year after we moved here. It’s a town where everyone is related to their neighbor or the neighbor next to them. As a result, I discovered that just going through the holidays as if there is no holiday works best for me. No family visits so I’m not reminded of the lack of visitors. I don’t want to sit alone in a Christmas home on Christmas Day or feel alone on TDay. If I ignore,no problems. I spent a lifetime enjoying family and festivities. To think that it’s all gone at 65 was hard on me. But in today’s world, famiy is important as you age and neighbors are busy with their families or do not want a friendly neighbor. Wives frown on widows who need help from husbands or who talk to much, visit too much. Staying alone means people do not get annoyed with you. And ignoring the holidays means no pain. Sometimes you must make hard decisions.

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