“I am totally not decorating a Christmas tree this year!”
That’s what I said the first time I drove past someone’s festively decorated home the year that my husband died.
That first Thanksgiving without my husband was the toughest. I was not prepared. I don’t think I could have been. I wasn’t going to be alone as my family members planned to do follow our tradition; have dinner at my house. My brother-in-law and his wife generously offered to make Thanksgiving dinner and bring it over. My boys were home from college and my in-laws wanted to see them.
I provided the wine which I started drinking very early that day. It was awkward. We all missed Mike but didn’t know how to approach his absence. We ate. We talked about stuff. Some of us drank a bit too much. We were together and not alone so that helped.
I remember wanting to just spend the day in my pajamas and order a pizza but I went along with the tradition of having family together. I cried all weekend. Grief is hard during the first year and holidays only make it worse.
For people dealing with the first holiday season without a loved one, this time of year can be simply awful. After an emotionally draining Thanksgiving holiday with family, I attempted to go back to work. I put on a happy face as I walked into my Kindergarten classroom and heard extravagant tales about where the elf on the shelf was found that morning and about the decorations and trees popping up in the homes of my students.
One day, I passed a dad in my neighborhood removing the Christmas tree from the car roof for his family. Oh, the fun they would have decorating together. I did not feel happy for them. I felt sad for me. My sadness pulled me deeper and deeper until I finally took a leave of absence from work. I needed a change of scenery.
After visiting a therapist I made a plan for the holidays:
Anticipating that the holidays were going to be a tough time for me, I sought to find a new and different way to celebrate Christmas. For Christmas, I booked a week long cruise to the Caribbean with my 2 sons. The cruise left from Florida so we also visited my mom, my sister and her family before and after the cruise. A week in the sunshine exploring beaches, pyramids and even swimming with dolphins on Christmas morning was different. Making new memories with my kids kept the sad feelings from taking over. Doing something different was my goal and choosing something fun that I could look forward to helped keep my mind off my grief.
Widows get a pass that first year so take it if you need it.
As the dates get closer this year I recognize that I may have waves where the grief hits me again. They still come unexpectedly but I have learned to ride them. I know to let the feelings hit and that I will be OK.
Learning to acknowledge my feelings and not always run away from them has been difficult. I love the analogy that my widowed aunt sent me after my husband died.
That the journey through grief is like treading down a road with potholes. In the beginning, the holes are big and wide. It seems you may never get out. Over time, the potholes are still there, but they do get smaller and come along less frequently.
Knowing that waves of sadness or tears will come, and that “this too shall pass” allows me to keep moving forward. Here are some suggestions that have helped me get through grief during the holidays when it is getting tough.
1. Do something different. Life without your loved one is different so don’t pretend you can carry on as you always have. When I finally put up a tree, I changed to all white ornaments. I anticipated that looking at family memory ornaments would be hard, so I didn’t go there in the beginning. Now seven years later, I can comfortably look at them, smile and reminisce about those years when Mike was here and the kids were little, but the first couple of years, it was too hard.
2. Start a gratitude practice. You’ve heard this before but it is so true. Reframing your mindset to one of gratitude makes a huge difference in your mental and physical health. Set a timer daily to recite 3 random things you are thankful for. You can write them in a journal or in your notepad on the phone or even just say them in your head. After the loss of a loved one it can be easy to focus on all that is missing, so by celebrating 3 small things each day you will begin to appreciate life again.
3. Take a walk outside. Get outside into nature and walk barefoot if you can. You will begin to feel more grounded. Use your senses to really be present and hear the sounds, notice what is around you, embrace the change in temperature and colors. Walking is one of the best things to do for your mental and physical health As one season ends, it makes room for new beginnings. Turn off the phone and just be outside.
4. Volunteer or buy some food for a food pantry. Plenty of people need support these days. One of the most healing things I did was the time my friend Juliann and I handed out bag lunches to the homeless in New York City. Food pantries need peanut butter, jelly, cereal, soups, applesauce, canned tuna or meats, pet food and personal hygiene items. Donating time or money to bring holiday cheer to those less fortunate puts life in perspective.
5. Call a friend or family member. Maybe they need to hear from you too. I don’t always like to make the call. In a world where we can text or email we sometimes forget about actually writing a letter of having a conversation. Once I am on the phone, it’s a great way of catching up with loved ones. Make an effort to reach out to someone.
6. Play with a pet. Harry is the best little dog and he makes me laugh. Sometimes I dress him up. He loves to play fetch or tug of war. He is quite good at sniffing so taking him outside for a walk is good for both of us. If you don’t have a pet, I bet there is a shelter nearby that would love someone to walk or play with a lonely animal.
7. Take a nap. Especially as the days are shorter and colder. Some days it just feel wonderful to take a midday nap. You are dealing with grief at the holidays and that can be exhausting! Be gentle with yourself and don’t expect so much. Taking a nap is good self-care in my opinion.
8. Go to Costco. This may just be my thing, but I love the openness of the warehouse store. Browsing at all the cool stuff from TVs to diamonds, sweaters to kitchen appliances, sports equipment, books and Christmas decorations are such a joy to me! Sampling new foods can be interesting and the cooked rotisserie chickens are a deal.
9. Pull some weeds or do yard work. Leaves are falling and the gardens look pitiful in the North. A bit of effort makes the yard look better and is a good workout. Now that I live in Florida, this is the time of year to plant annuals to brighten up the gardens since it is no longer so hot outside. Getting your hands in the dirt is a great way to connect with the earth’s electromagnetic energy which leads to benefits with sleep, stress and all sorts of health benefits
10. Read a book. I have discovered the Kindle and Libby apps on my phone. With my library membership I can download books to my I-pad and many are available in audible so I listen to them while I walk or exercise. Finishing the book is important if you want to participate at Book Club. Or, you could purchase a book about grief. Here’s my blog about Grief Books I found helpful: 12 Best Grief Books
Order my book here:
11. Listen to Music. If you have an Alexa or Echo in your home, you can tell it to play a song and enjoy the music. Another fun thing to do is to find the song on Youtube with the lyrics and sing along. It’s interesting how many songs we think we know, but the actual lyrics are different from what we assume. Music has the power to put us in a good mood or even make us emotional. It’s all up to you!
Getting through the holidays is tough. You will have some moments when the grief hits you in the face. Sometimes the anticipation of the “special” date, just like the anniversaries, can be more upsetting than the actual date.
Plan a way to remember your loved one. I like to share a story about the ones who are gone, which includes late husband, my parents, and my in-laws. When other people see you enjoying their memories, maybe they will share some of their own as well.
Light that candle, set that extra place setting at the table, display photos from the past and enjoy and appreciate the love you had.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, except when it isn’t.
Remember if you know someone who became a widow this year, sending them a care package is a nice way to help them through this tough time. For ideas on what to get them check out my post: I’m here for you – Send a care package to a widow this year.
Thanks for reading my blog and sharing my journey.
Do you have any suggestions for dealing with the holidays when you don’t always feel up to it?