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It’s Just Not the Same: Navigating the Holidays in the Midst of Loss

My mom was the epitome of everything you can imagine to be amazing during the holidays. Every single holiday. But Thanksgiving and Christmas were the best.

From as little as I can remember, she worked so hard to make the holidays special for everyone. All the details were accounted for. She spent hours preparing the most beautiful feast, and all were welcome to come and take part. The house would fill with people, gifts, conversation, and laughter. It was something dreams were made of. I loved the holidays.

experiencing lossIn a million years I would have never predicted I would need to learn to navigate loss during this “joyous” time of year.

In 2012 my mom disappeared without a trace. Gone. That is a story for another post (or 15), that I won’t go into today, but I can say that we haven’t seen her since. I lost my brother two years later. My dad moved to Florida, which is on the other side of the US. My husband and I had to walk away from some other family relationships. There was a ton of loss in a short period of time. All of a sudden, everything changed. We went from being a big family with lots of holiday traditions and support, to it being just us.  

In the years to come after my mom left and we navigated our losses, the holiday season didn’t bring joy, it brought a multitude of mixed emotions. Guilt for not appreciating all she did when she was here. Grief over the loss of loved ones, important relationships, and support in our lives. Sadness that my son would never experience Christmas at Grandma’s house. I would find myself getting extremely jealous of everyone who had a large extended family to be with on the holidays. A twinge of anger would spark in my belly, and the tears would burn in my eyes when I would see families all together.

I felt lost. I felt angry. I felt resentful. How could my heart be breaking and everyone else be filled with joy and holiday cheer? All I could focus on was what I no longer had.

The holidays MAGNIFY loss. We feel these loss and deal with it the rest of the year as well. It’s not that loss doesn’t exist at other times, it’s just that the holiday season has a way of putting squarely in our face the things we are missing. It can be the loss of a person, job, relationship, marriage, finances, a move…it’s all loss. And it’s all hard. And without the thing you lost, it will never be the same. And that’s something we have to learn to navigate.

Here are a few things that can help navigate loss: 

Honor the loss

honoring lossIf it’s the loss of a relationship, a job, or other life changes that you’re grieving, how can you honor that? What did it teach you and what are you going to take from it?

Understanding that every single situation holds a purpose in our lives and honoring that purpose is important. You can honor the love you shared or the child you created together. The goal is to find a way to bring honor to all that has come before this moment. 

If it’s a person, how can you honor them? How can you bring their spirit into your heart and home? I honor my mom by putting out some of the Christmas decorations that most remind me of her. I use some of her recipes. I carry on some of the traditions she created. I thank her for all the work she did when I was young and for the beautiful memories I have.  

Develop new traditions

When you have made space to honor and remember the person or situation you are missing so dearly, it allows space for bringing in the new. It doesn’t mean you don’t miss them. It doesn’t mean it’s not still hard. It means you are still here, and you get to create anew.

Find a way to do something totally different than before. Maybe go on a cruise over the holiday or invite people over to your place. Try something that’s outside the box of what you would have done before. Traveling is a great distraction, especially during the first few years. Keep moving. Keep breathing. Check something off your bucket list or spend the day curled up in a blanket with a great book. The beauty is you get to decide what new traditions you will create.

Allow yourself to grieve

Something we all get sucked into so easily is comparative suffering. This is when we devalue our own experience because we know that other people “have it worse.” I used to feel like I shouldn’t be sad because there were people who had lost much more than me. This is absolutely not helpful for anyone. Loss is loss. And it hurts. We have to allow ourselves the time and the space to grieve that loss; to show ourselves grace and compassion in the face of that pain; and to know that it’s a process and that the feelings today will not necessarily be the same as tomorrow. And that is A-OK. Be gentle with yourself. 

Give back

Find a way to give back to someone in need during the holiday season. Find other people who are also hurting and need a community of support. Volunteer at a local homeless shelter or community outreach program. Whatever it is, find a way to give back. There are many people who need the help, and it will also brighten your spirits as well. The human spirit needs one another. We can heal together.

supporting loss

Reach out

Let people know where you’re at. Don’t try to pretend that everything is ok when it isn’t. The last thing you need is to try and pretend your pain doesn’t exist. This is the most isolating and terrible feeling in the world. Find a friend, a counselor, or someone you trust who can sit with you in the trenches of the loss. Please don’t try to go through it alone. It’s okay to not feel like you’re in the holiday spirit. Just don’t put on a mask and act like you are.  

Allow support

Take people up on their offer to help, or their invite to dinner, or whatever it is. We have to allow ourselves to be the receiver of help, love, and compassion as well. During the early years of my mom leaving, when it was all very fresh and new and HARD, a dear friend of mine would include us in their family holiday celebrations. It felt awkward at first to take her up on the invite, like we were “intruding.” That quickly wore off. The reality is that friends ARE  family, and it meant more to me than she will ever know. 

Shift your focus

When I was focusing only on the way things “used” to be, I couldn’t see the beauty of the people I still had right in front of me. I couldn’t focus on my husband, kids, and great friends, or on how I wanted my children to remember the holidays. I needed to move away from what I lost and look more closely at what I wanted moving forward. It’s important to remember that shifting your focus does not negate your loss. In the last 7 years we have created some fun new traditions. I know my mom would be proud of those. 

For me, the holidays can still be hard. They will never be the same as they used to be. And I can grieve that season and create anew. Now I have the ability to look back at those days with a smile and love. It took me a while to get here, and it’s not always perfect. I still feel the twinge from time to time and I just have to walk myself through, allowing grace to be my guide. Let’s find ways to honor what we’ve lost, grow forward, and love ourselves along the way. 

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