For a bereaved parent, this time of year might not be the season of Yuletide-cheer it once was. Your eggnog might taste like crap even if it is homemade. The lights and Lords-a-leapin’ might have lost their luster. The whole season might feel like a cruel, sick joke. Worse yet, you might feel like the only person who has one or more missing from your holiday table.
The anxiety of the looming holidays can be downright debilitating. Surviving it can often feel virtually impossible.
Guess what? That’s perfectly ok. Not easy, but it’s ok to allow it to be exactly what it is– nothing more and nothing less. If you feel like shit, allow it. Though repugnant, this is your new holiday reality. For now.
You certainly don’t have to like it. It’s also possible you might need some new traditions and tools to help you survive. Here is the good news: there are compassionate souls ready and willing to offer their open arms, shoulders to cry on, and hard-earned wisdom, to help you navigate the emotional landmines of the holidays. Seek the support of these gentle and loving hearts often.
Keep in mind, none of this is simple or “easy” to do. Nothing post-loss is. In fact, oftentimes it is excruciatingly difficult, and might feel more like torture and a whole lot of ‘Bah! Humbug!’ than ‘Happy Holidays!!!’
Just remember all you have to do is survive, and you get to decide how you’ll best do that.
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People will probably forget that it’s your job, and not theirs, so you might have to gently remind them. That your heart is the one that is broken beyond repair.
Here is what has helped me survive the holidays these past six years as a bereaved parent. Keyword: survive.
6 Ways to Survive the Holidays Without Your Child:
1). Practice sensational self-care. Give yourself permission to take good care of yourself. You deserve it. And you need it. Trust me. Treat yourself as you would a physically wounded person with deep, visible, bleeding wounds. Just because emotional wounds are invisible, doesn’t make them less debilitating, or less real. Remember that. Remind your loved ones of this too. Treat yourself extra gently this time of year– like the carefully marked packages that read, Fragile: handle with care. More than that, be proactive. Have a plan to give yourself the gift of good self-care all season long.
2). Remove all expectations. Free yourself to participate in as little or as much holiday hoopla as you’d like. Forget about everyone’s expectations, especially yours and people who might not understand your pain. Adjust your expectations to be realistic with what is. Keyword: realistic. This year might look much different than last year, so adjust accordingly with what you can handle right now, as you are, at this moment. As hard as it might be, try not to compare what you are able to do this year with anyone else, including past versions of yourself. Yes, I know. So. painfully. hard. But try to do it anyway. Be realistic, radically kind, and oh-so-loving with yourself.
3). Just show up (or not.) Allow yourself to change locations, holiday traditions or defy social norms. Allow yourself to show up, or not. Here’s the thing: nothing is “normal” anymore. Normal died the day your child did. Which means you’re now living in the land of defying normal. Anything goes. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do this year, even if it seems “abnormal” or outlandish to yourself or anyone else.
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Allow yourself the “5-minute rule,” where you decide 5 minutes before an event if you can make it or not. Communicate this with your host beforehand. Thank them for the invitation, and let them know you’re not sure if you’ll be able to make it, but if you’re up to it, you’ll be there. That alone might feel liberating and more do-able. Less pressure, and the freedom to honor what you need at that moment.
Laugh when you need to laugh; cry when you need to cry; let yourself wallow if you need to wallow. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. They’re not in survivable mode, you are. Staying in bed until the holidays pass, or ditching town altogether is all completely acceptable options. Think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to do something completely different that shakes up all expectations. And possibly your Great Aunt Bertha. What worked in the past might not work now, and that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes a change of scenery is exactly what’s needed to survive the holidays without your precious child.
4). Honor your child in ways that are meaningful to you. Keyword: meaningful to you. Light a candle at your holiday table in loving memory of your precious child. Say your child’s name. Ask others to do the same. Acknowledge the glaringly empty chair. Participate in random acts of kindness in loving memory of your precious child gone too soon. Donate your favorite grief book to your local library, church, hospital, grief center, therapist’s office, or to someone who needs it. Volunteer at an orphanage. Volunteer right in your neighborhood. Or, one of my all-time favorites: donate gifts for children who are the exact same age your child would be.
No matter what you choose to do, spread hope and help others, even if you don’t feel like you have much to give. Whatever you give will be multiplied, and it will be more than enough. After all, the true gift is in the giving, especially in the midst of deep grief.
5). Feel your feelings, no matter how messy they are. Give yourself ample space to feel however you feel, including opposite emotions at the same time. You might feel hopeful and defeated; joyful and sorrowful; happy and sad; grateful and not; angry and peaceful. And all of these emotions might be even more amplified during the holidays. A wise person once told me that being able to hold space for contradictory emotions at the same time is a sign of extraordinary emotional maturity. It’s true. You’re not crazy– even though it may feel like it– you’re extraordinary. Remind yourself of this often.
Especially every time you feel ripped apart at the seams by your dueling and opposing emotions. It’s hard work to continually feel that way. Grief is unpredictable, exhausting, confusing and messy. Do your best to feel all of it until you need a break from feeling. It’s ok to take a break and re-set. Deep breathing, chatting with a friend, a brisk walk outside, yoga, exercise, herbal tea, and healthy eating are all good ways to support the emotional toll grief takes on your body during the holidays.
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6). Ask for help. Whether online or in person, compassionate, empathetic support saves lives. Period. Having a village of support can often make the difference between surviving or not. I wasn’t lucky enough to have a village, but I had one person– and that was somehow enough to keep my head above water. Hopefully, you have a village or at least one dearest one who knows how to offer you compassionate and loving grief support whenever you need it. If you don’t have anyone, count me in your corner. Seriously.
Everyone needs someone to lean on. There is no worse feeling in the world than feeling utterly and completely alone on your own deserted planet called: Bereaved Parent. Do yourself a favor and ask for help, for whatever you need. Be proactive by having your core support “team” at the ready. For whatever might come. Your “team” might be made up of one person, or ten– it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a support person will be there when you need him or her most. It might be your spouse, your best friend, or your therapist. Whether you need someone to listen, cry with you, or lie in the ditch of grief with you, have these dear souls ready. As your safety net, your safe place to land, your whispers of hope. It might be the one sure thing that eases your mind and heart this holiday season, in a way nothing else will.
In the words of Sarah Longacre, “Let your support rise up to meet you.”
Remember, this is not an exhaustive list of ways to survive. These are just some ideas of things that might be helpful to you. Take what is helpful, leave what is not.
I’m no expert, only an expert at trusting my own heart and doing what works for me.
Just like grief, there are no rules for surviving holiday grief. Do what you need to do to survive. Honor your child how you need to, and do what feels best for your fragile, aching heart. You are missing a huge piece of you, so do whatever you need to do to find a sliver of peace.
Remember that no one, no one, no one has the exact relationship you do with your precious child. No one will feel the exact same piercing agony, pain and longing you do for your child. Therefore, no one has a right to give you unsolicited advice about how to tend to your soul-deep wounds– this holiday season– or any day of the year.
Throw out well-meaning but unhelpful advice. Throw out any to-do lists that don’t work for you.
Realistic. Do-able. If it feels like too much, listen. Follow your heart. Let it lead you through this holiday season. Your heart knows exactly what it needs to comfort itself and to prevent further damage and unnecessary bruising.
Trust your own broken, beating heart.
And if anyone gives you crap, blame me.
A version of this article originally appeared on the blog All That Love Can Do by Angela Miller