The Stickley rocker next to my woodstove, where my grandmother loved to sit, will be empty this Thanksgiving.
She died in August, but I still feel her presence everywhere. She’s in my frost-deadened flower garden. She’s at my kitchen sink. She’s in my recipe box — her shaky handwriting tugging at my heart from a folded piece of notepaper inscribed with the instructions for calamari ripieni. Together, we made that recipe for every Christmas Eve dinner.
I don’t know if I can do it without her.
At a glance
Tips to help a grieving loved one during the holidays:
• Be supportive of the way the person chooses to handle the holidays. Some may wish to follow traditions; others may choose to change their rituals. Remember, there is no right way or wrong way.
• Offer to help the person with baking and/or cleaning. Both tasks can be overwhelming when someone is experiencing acute grief.
• Offer to help decorate for the holidays.
• Offer to help with holiday shopping.
• Help your loved one prepare and mail holiday cards.
• Invite the person to attend a religious service with you and your family.
• Invite your loved one to your home for the holidays.
• Ask the person if he or she is interested in volunteering with you during the holiday season. Doing something for someone else, such as helping at a soup kitchen or working with children, may help him or her feel better about the holidays.
• Donate a gift or money in memory of the person’s loved one.
• Never tell someone that he or she should be “over it.” Instead, give the person hope that, eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.
• If he or she wants to talk about the deceased loved one or feelings associated with the loss, listen.
• Remind the person you are thinking of him or her and the loved one who died. Cards, phone calls and visits are great ways to stay in touch.
Source: National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
Carrying on after a loved one passes away is never easy, but the loss is often felt even more sharply at the holidays. Paired with the harsh reality of death, fond memories of family gatherings, well-loved traditions and happy times past can be almost too painful to bear. But bereavement support experts and those who have been through holiday seasons when grief has been a constant companion say there are ways to make the upcoming celebrations less emotionally draining, and to bring new meaning to them as well.
Maryanne Malecki, executive director of Haven of Schenectady, a bereavement support center, lost her husband, John, in May of 2007. Her first Christmas without him was extremely difficult.
“I didn’t have a tree. I couldn’t do it,” she recalled. Her home was traditionally the gathering place at Christmas, but feeling too overwhelmed by loss to hold the usual gathering, she created a new tradition: a winter solstice party.
“All I provided was a clean house and everybody brought over something to share,” she said.
The new tradition has been held on every winter solstice since, and although Christmas will never be the way it once was, Malecki finds joy in the re-imagined celebration.
“The tendency is, with the holidays, we don’t want to deal with them, or we feel the pressure that we have to do everything exactly the way everybody expects us to do
it, and we are just tired and we can’t do it. We don’t feel like doing it,” she said, of people who are grieving.
Since the holidays can’t help but change once an important member of the celebrations is gone, Malecki recommended examining traditions and sorting what is important to keep from what can go by the wayside.
“There’s no one way. There’s no one route to take. There is no wrong in this. Do what makes sense to you,” she advised.
Changing things by choosing a new location for the celebration or by inviting different people can be therapeutic.
Finding ways to incorporate the person who has died into the celebration is important too, Malecki said.
She has found lighthearted ways to include her late husband in the festivities. Humor can be good medicine, she noted.
“The urn that my husband’s ashes were in, we put a Santa’s hat on it. … He played the French horn, so his French horn became a centerpiece, with all of the garland around it and the ornaments,” she said.
Other ways to honor a lost loved one during the holidays include planning a meal around his or her favorite foods, or lighting a special candle, having a moment of silence or a making a toast in his or her memory.
Even with all the best efforts, the celebration will likely have difficult moments. Be conscious of your feelings and spend some time away from the crowd if necessary. Avoid trying to drown sorrows with overeating or alcohol, and allow yourself to cry.
Marie Fortune, a bereavement support staff member at Haven, lost her husband unexpectedly in April of 2008 after 40 years of marriage. Her house was always the hub of holiday celebrations.
She recalled her longing to hold onto the past, coupled with the necessity to move on and change.
“We are under even more pressure from now until the first of the year to very often uphold tradition. On one hand, you’ve lost so much already. Are you also going to lose whatever feeling you had, whatever tradition that you upheld, what this meant to you in your life before your loss?”
She reached out to Haven for grief counseling and found comfort in the fact that she was not alone in her grieving.
“During that time, although you feel like you’re the only person in the universe going through this and your pain is so individual, you learn after a while that there are certain truisms about grief that we all experience,” she said.
Seeking support, from a counselor, a support group, friends or family members, can be of enormous help.
Kate Sullivan, a counselor at Haven, lost her ex-husband, Mike, when her three sons were teenagers. This will be the family’s fifth holiday season without him.
“I coped so badly during that first holiday season. It was very difficult. I really feel I could have been there more for my kids. Now what I try to do is I try to let them lead me through the holidays,” she said.
Her son, Connor Sullivan-Irwin, recalled the pain of the first few Christmases.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to think,” he recounted. “My parents were separated, but it didn’t feel right because we’d have our Christmas with our mom and then we’d have our Christmas with our dad the next day. The first year, it was our Christmas with our mom, and then we just did nothing the next day. I thought, ‘We need to get up and we need to go do something,’ but we didn’t.”
The following year, the boys went to a hill where they used to go sledding with their father and spent the day after Christmas flying across the snow.
“It was sad, but it was fun,” Sullivan-Irwin said.
Around the holidays, he sometimes writes notes to his dad and tosses them into a campfire.
“There’s something really relieving about it,” he confided.
After spending four holiday seasons without his father, the 17-year-old is a reluctant expert on the subject of coping with loss at a time of year when everyone is expected to be filled with good cheer.
“I think you just have to be thankful this season,” he advised. “Spend as much time with your family as you can and be thankful for what you’ve had, and [don’t dwell on] what you’ve lost.”