During my childhood, Christmas was a time to pull out the record player, dust off the Boney M vinyl and pick childish ornaments out of an old Woodward’s hat box for the tree. My mom, sister and I loved to play out our roles in the traditional Christmas year after year. Our script for the holidays was simple, but it was ours.
Even though the record is now scratched and the box offers no protection, I still have these artifacts of Christmas. They remind me of mom.
Many families re-create old memories during the holiday season. Every family has a unique Christmas routine, and it can be difficult to fulfill the expectations of all involved, year after year. Those who celebrate this holiday following the loss of a close loved one have an even greater challenge in their grief.
Christmas grief is heightened by stress during the holiday season. On top of the typical pressures of Christmas, it is also the time of year when people facing stress are expected to put on a brave face. After all, no one likes a grinch.
The first Christmas without mom, I went way overboard with traditions. I made the day a bigger celebration of those small family traditions than ever before, but it wasn’t the same. Friends and family dropped off presents and words of condolences, hoping that we were going to be okay. My sister drifted around the house, looking as depressed as I felt. We made a decision not to hang a stocking for mom. The tradition of fastening our special holiday bird ornament to the top of the tree, just below the angel, suddenly fell to me. That was always mom’s tree-trimming duty. A rendition of “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord” wrecked me for an entire morning.
IF GRIEF HAS CHANGED THE WAY YOU FEEL ABOUT CHRISTMAS, YOU’RE NOT ALONE.
The pressure to feel joyful is the most devastating part of a Christmas steeped in grief. You may expect the holiday season to bring cheer to a dark time. But, If you haven’t experienced much cheer recently, it may actually do the opposite. There is nothing more unbearable than suppressing deep grief feelings. Trying to follow the script will only highlight the differences between how you want to feel and how you really feel.
IS CHRISTMAS GRIEF AVOIDABLE?
Not entirely. If Christmas has been a part of your life, especially if the person you’ve lost was a part of the celebration, you will likely feel grief during the holiday season. And that’s a good thing. You do need to grieve, but you don’t need to throw yourself to the wolves emotionally.
Changing your expectations of Christmas is the best way to mitigate your pain this year, and even in years to come. The grief you feel will resurface each year, bringing new challenges with it. It’s hard enough to think of facing Christmas this first year, but what about the next? And the next?
SWITCH IT UP
Try changing your routine for Christmas. If in past years you stayed home surrounded by family, try going out of town. If you always cooked a big dinner, try takeout instead. And if you want to avoid family members, give yourself permission to do your own thing. The first few Christmases following a huge loss are your business.
You can still change your routine if you plan on sticking to your main traditions. Try different music, decorations, foods, and avoid anything that could put more stress on you. This might not be the best year to learn how to cook a full turkey dinner, host a large event, or make a lot of travel plans.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO GET OUT OF CHRISTMAS?
If you are considering canceling Christmas this year, you might have some fears about what people will think. Is opting out of Christmas a Scrooge move, or simply exercising good personal boundaries? Are people going to think you’re trying to get out of buying presents? Will family try to stop you from being away from them on Christmas?
These worries are normal and, depending on the people in your life, could be actualized should you decide to skip. It’s not easy to avoid this holiday.
You might not be sure you really want to be alone on Christmas. You might feel pressured to get involved in the festivities. You might notice family and friends searching you for signs of depression or suicidal feelings. You might not know what to do with your time on the actual day.
CANCELING THE FIRST CHRISTMAS IS THE HARDEST. PEOPLE WILL FIGHT YOU.
After that first year of doing Christmas to the max, I took the day to be in solitude. My controversial wish to cancel Christmas was, at first, the biggest “sign” of an emotional nosedive to my family and friends. They worried that I was avoiding joy, torturing myself and trying to be grinchy.
But it wasn’t that at all. I called my family and friends to wish them a ‘Merry Christmas.’ Then I played video games, ordered takeout, practiced guitar, went for a walk, and generally did whatever I felt like. It was the first Christmas I was allowed to have unbridled freedom. And I found, without the pressure of having to be cheerful, I didn’t feel the need to sink into thoughts of mom or Christmases past. It was barely like Christmas at all.
If you are going to de-cheer Christmas, let the people close to you know that you are taking the day for yourself. The social expectations of the day are stressful at the best of times. Add in a major grief reaction, and it’s no wonder you aren’t looking for a second helping of pain.
IT’S NOT THE LAST CHRISTMAS
Christmas came again, year after year. Each year brought the same dilemma — would I celebrate? Would I organize a dinner? Drink eggnog? Put the bird on the top of the tree? Pull out the Boney M record? For years, I did not.
But one year, I missed my family’s abandoned traditions. I was afraid that going down the path of Christmas cheer would be a treacherous one, but my grief had changed. I was strong enough now to immerse myself in painful memories. And at that point — three or four years after the tragedy — I craved them.
I returned to our Christmas traditions with fears, anxiety, and an abundance of caution. Despite the tinkling of the vibraphone, the Woodward’s box, and the full turkey dinner, it was different. I was different. The major sting of grief had passed, and Christmas could resume.
Consider changing your holiday patterns this year if you’re in the throes of deep grief. It may mitigate the stress of the day, and perhaps bring you some cheer during a tough time.
Originally published on BeyondTheDash.com