My family and I are entering our first holiday season with an empty seat at the table. Typically, the holidays are a time for gathering together and marking the passage of time in our lives. But when you lose someone, you no longer feel like the passage of time deserves a celebration.
It’s been about seven months since Jacob, our beloved son and brother, was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 22. Before my brother died, I had no idea how many other families had an empty seat at the table. Turns out grief and loss will touch the lives of everyone at some point.
As the holidays approach, many in the grief community may feel their sadness deepen. For me, the lead-up to Thanksgiving sent me into a spiral. I was desperately looking for ways to honor my brother so the holidays wouldn't feel so empty. There are a number of ways to incorporate your loved ones and your loss into the Holidays.
What my family did:
For Thanksgiving, my family decided to set a place at the table for Jacob.
His place setting made us feel he was included in the holiday festivities.
My mom handmade a memorial wreath and a photo ring, so we could display his photo at the table for all to see. We each wrote down a memory of Jacob on an index card and took turns reading out our memories. This activity sparked a lot of joy as we recalled stories about my brother as a teenager that my parents hadn't been privy to (teenagers will be teenagers).
While setting a place setting may have helped my family, you are welcome to participate, or not participate in any tradition you see fit.
Tips for coping with grief during the holidays:
1). Set realistic expectations for yourself. Keep in mind that holidays while you're grieving will be different than holidays in the years past. There is no reason you have to continue the traditions. Take a look at the tasks & events around the Holiday and ask yourself, “Do I feel like doing this?” If you don’t feel like decorating the house - you don’t have to. If you don’t feel like celebrating the holidays at all - You don’t have to. It’s okay if all you feel like doing is decorating one cookie and then curling up in bed and watching a movie. There is no judgment here. You will feel best after listening to yourself and what you need.
2). Surround yourself with people you actually like. If you don’t enjoy spending time around your mother-in-law, for example, guess what? You don’t have to. You really don't. You get to set boundaries and protect your healing this holiday season. Surrounding yourself with loving, supportive friends and family during this time will make all the difference. Further, accept support from those people. Accept offers of help with cooking, shopping, decorating, etc. You don’t have to do this alone.
3). Create a new tradition or ritual. Some people find comfort in maintaining holiday traditions. Some people find the thought of participating in traditions incredibly painful. Ask yourself what you’d like to include or exclude this year.
Some examples of new traditions include:
- Not celebrating at all. Instead, take yourself on a walk or a trip
- Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree
- Create a memory box and fill it with photos or memory notes. Invite friends and family to contribute to the memory box. Young children can participate by adding a drawing to the memory box. This is a great way to recall memories and spark laughter during tough times.
- Light a candle in honor of your loved one.
- Set a place setting at the table for your loved one. This sends the message that “You may be gone, but you’re never forgotten, and you will always have a place at our table.”
- Visit and/or decorate the memorial site. Set flowers at the gravestone, light a candle next to the urn, etc.
- Make a holiday toast to honor your loved one.
Even if you haven't lost anyone, someone you know is preparing for their first Holiday Season without their person (husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, etc,). Others are preparing for their last. Regardless of the specifics, remember that this season of joy is often a season of sorrow for many.