By Rebeca Alcantara, LAMFT
The holidays are often characterized by joy and celebration. Family and friends make plans to gather together during the last weeks of the year. Missing our late loved ones may bring conflicting emotions when others expect us to be bursting with delight. The holidays are a time when we are even more likely to miss those who have passed away, especially when they have played significant roles in our lives.
Mutual Support Honoring a Late Loved One
We may believe that we are the only person deeply affected by the absence of a loved one. But, sharing our feelings with others may facilitate mutual emotional support. We may work with others to create ways to honor those who have passed away. For instance, if you plan on having family over, you may put together a memory stocking or box where you and your guests can collect notes written with memories you treasure of your loved one. The family can pick a special time to read them together. Another way to nurture each other would be to include one of your loved one’s favorite dishes in your holiday meal for you and your guests to enjoy, keeping present the memory of that person.
It is essential to remember that different people grieve in different ways. Communicating our plans in advance with those we will spend the holidays with ensures that we are sensitive to everyone’s grieving and that there is agreement on how to memorialize the late loved one. Considering that the way others wish to spend the holidays may be different from ours helps us safeguard that everyone’s feelings are carefully thought about. Be open to the possibility of someone preferring not to accept your invitation. You could offer that person some one-on-one time on another occasion.
An Individual Approach
There are times when we may prefer an individual approach to honoring a late loved one. Simple acts such as going through old photo albums, watching home movies, lighting a memorial candle, or playing soothing music may serve that purpose. Suppose you would prefer to do something in your loved one’s memory. In that case, you may donate holiday decorations to your place of worship or a community space, contribute to a charity organization your loved one used to endorse, or volunteer in their name.
Be Gentle with Yourself
It is essential to remember to be gentle with yourself. If you feel overwhelmed with grief, consider that your loved one would want you to be kind to yourself. Permit yourself to choose how to spend time celebrating with others, honoring your late loved one, and exercising self-care. Remember that it is okay if there are times that you are sad and other times that you are happy. Being happy does not mean that you have forgotten or no longer love as much the person who is no longer with you.
Be aware that the grieving process may take us through emotional ups and downs. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. No two people experience grief in the same way. Some people may skip some stages, repeat stages, or stay longer in one stage. In the denial stage, it may be difficult to believe that the person has passed away, fantasizing that the person may come home at any moment. Then, we may feel angry towards the person who passed away for abandoning us, blame family members for the death, or feel angry with a higher power. Family therapy may facilitate resolving the conflicts that sometimes arise between family members after a death. We may play scenarios in our heads, bargaining how the death could have been prevented. Our sadness could be such that depression could sink in. Therapy may help overcome the depression stage or navigate the process in general. Finally, when we reach acceptance, we can adjust to life after the death of the loved one, keeping their memory close, and understanding that our grief is less raw yet remains.
A Transformed Relationship
When a loved one passes away, we tend to believe that we have unequivocally lost our relationship with that person. In the spirit of self-compassion, try and remind yourself that the relationship has been transformed, not lost. Although our loved one is not physically present, their impact on our existence subsists for the rest of our lives. Furthermore, we continue having an impact on our loved one by carrying their legacy and honoring their memory.
People experience the death of loved ones in a variety of ways. A person may feel at peace accepting the passing of one loved one but feel more affected with a deep sense of loss for another. The latter situation may bring an impression of endless grief. To help oneself cope, the person can work on changing the narrative of complete loss of the relationship by allowing oneself to find ways to bond with the late loved one.
It is a common practice in relational therapy to suggest grieving clients write letters to the person who passed away. Another practice is the empty chair: the client sits in front of an empty chair and talks to the person who passed. Those activities allow the client to connect with the person who passed away. When my clients long for a long-term bond with their late loved ones, I suggest keeping a “bonding box” tucked away at home. When the client is greatly missing their loved one or even has a happy story the client wishes to share, the client can write a note, date it, and save it in the bonding box. As time passes by, the bonding box fills. The relationship with the late loved one lives on.
Finally, for some people, the festivities of the end of the year may bring nostalgic memories of different people who have passed away. Going through the ritual of buying holiday cards for late loved ones, filling them with our thoughts and feelings, and putting them in a special place, tucked away or not, may help alleviate sadness. By honoring those who have passed away, and being mindful of the points made above, we may feel a connection with late loved ones and the freedom to enjoy those still with us.