Surviving the Holidays

This article was written by Eleanor Haley, a Family Services Coordinator for The Living Legacy Foundation. She gave us permission to post it on the blog to share with all of you, and we thought it would be helpful for all of our wonderful donor families out there.

I called my sister this morning because I couldn’t remember how my family celebrated Christmas the year after my mom died. She died in October, so Christmas came only a few months later.  That was only four Christmases ago, and I could clearly remember all the ones since, so why were my memories from that Christmas so foggy, so flat, and so gray?

My sister quickly reminded me of the debates among my five siblings about how we would celebrate: some wanted to have it at home as we always did; others wanted to say forget it and fly to an island somewhere. She spoke of her anxiety about who would carry out the traditions and duties that were always my mother’s during the holiday season. She clearly recalled the unpredictable waves of emotion brought on by special ornaments and certain holiday songs. It became clear to me, as she described the roller coaster of emotion she felt as she navigated the minefield of memory-provoking tradition, that the details of that year are ones that she would never forget. That Christmas, everyone in my family was in survival mode, but my sister’s very distinct memories now made it clear to me that we each kept afloat in very different ways.

For many who have recently lost a loved one, the holidays are all of a sudden about finding ways to “make it through.”

How will I get through the holiday party? How can I unwrap the decorations when they all remind me of her? How will I manage to put on a happy face for my family? What do I do with his stocking?

You will find the answers to these questions are both individual to the loss and the person experiencing it. As Alan D. Wolfelt notes in his book, Healing Your Holiday Grief, “Your grief is…the one-of-a-kind product of the unique relationship and love you shared with the person who died.” The way you manage to get through the holidays may not be the same as your siblings or parents; and it may not follow the advice and expectations of your family and friends. Dr. Wolfelt suggests, “Find ways to mourn that work for you. When others judge your grief, don’t take it to heart.”

The following is a short list of suggestions which may help you in the coming weeks…

  • Be prepared – Think about which days and events of the upcoming holiday season will be the hardest to get through. Plan how you will handle them and communicate your plans to family and friends.
  • Changing tradition is okay – You may feel the need to alter some observances. See the accompanying article on suggestions for creating new traditions and honoring your loved one.
  • Expect to be emotional – Simple things like a gift he might have loved or hearing her favorite Christmas song may have you suddenly in tears. Know and expect waves of emotion will come and go and this is OK.
  • Talk about it – Find family, friends, or a support group who you can talk to about your worries, feelings, and memories.
  • Be open to happy moments – Don’t rule out the possibility the holidays could also bring moments of joy, love, and cheer.
  • Believe that each year will get easier – The holidays may always bring sad memories, but believe with each passing year you will have more joy and less pain.

Creating Holiday Traditions to Honor Loved Ones

The holidays are always a difficult time following a loss.  Though you may find some of your family’s old rituals and traditions comforting, this may also be a time to create new traditions. Below are some ideas you may want to consider:

  • Light a candle in your home or at your holiday table in memory of your loved one.  If your loved one was able to help others through donation, you may also wish to light a candle in honor of the recipients whose lives were touched by his/her generous gifts.
  • Put together a collage, photo album or slide show of past holidays with your loved one.  Share these photos during your holiday celebration as a way to remember your loved one together.
  • Offer a holiday dinner prayer or toast to your loved one.
  • If you loved one was able to donate organs or tissues, write a letter or holiday card to your loved one’s recipients.
  • Buy a gift for your loved one and donate it to a charity or donate the money you would have spent on a gift to a charity.
  • Spend time sharing memories of your loved one as a family.  This could mean sharing stories aloud or starting a scrapbook in which family members can write down memories.

Though it may be tempting to distract away from the pain of the holiday season, acknowledging these difficult feelings is an important part of grieving.  Expressing sadness and tears during the holidays is okay.  At the same time, enjoying new traditions with family and friends is okay too.  You will likely feel a wide range of emotions throughout the holiday season; it is important to embrace all of these different feelings.   And just remember, if you try a new activity and it doesn’t seem like a good fit, it doesn’t have to become a tradition.  You can always try something new next year.


About Lauren

Lauren Muskauski is the communications associate at The Living Legacy Foundation. She heads up many community outreach initiatives and projects, with a focus on middle school, high school and college outreach. She also manages The LLF’s and Donate Life Maryland’s presence on social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook. Lauren’s commitment to donation started early when she registered as an organ, eye and tissue donor at the MVA upon receiving her first drivers’ license, but was then reinforced a few years later when her father passed away while waiting for a liver transplant. Now, she continues to be inspired on a daily basis by the generosity of donors and their families, as well as the gratitude exhibited by every recipient she meets.
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