Monday, November 18, 2013

Ten Tips to Surviving the Holiday Kaleidoscope

Pumpkin spice lattes. Steaming hot cocoa. Storefronts dressed in holiday style.

The holiday season is a time of gaiety filled with Hallmark moments. But for those with a heart full of sorrow, the first pumpkin spice ad can herald a trickle of nostalgia and a torrent of tears with nowhere to escape.

I remember our first year without Aly, our holiday-loving 15-year-old daughter who died in a car accident one summer's end. On top of indescribable grief, the approaching holidays suddenly added a new layer of dread.

Aly and I had always loved the holiday season with unbridled enthusiasm. Unpacking yuletide decorations in October was common. It was simply a passion we shared. Now facing the holidays without her teenage exuberance over Home Alone 2 and Andy Williams, how would our family manage? How would we survive such pain?

I didn't want to face the holidays to find out. I wanted to hit the pause button and skip over the entire next decade. But one look into my young grandson's eyes told me I couldn't. As much as nothing felt normal, normalcy felt like the right thing to do. I had to carry on.

Making the decision to muster forward, I allowed tradition to carry me through. I was in a fog of grief anyway, so allowed autopilot to become my new best friend. When the landscape of landmines elicited visceral reactions, familiarity gave me comfort and guided me through.

With 8 years now under my belt, I can honestly say I no longer dread what was once—and continues to be—my favorite time of year. With the holidays now around the corner, it's important to hold on to the idea that hope is possible. But until that happens, the following tips will help the newly bereaved navigate through the festivities with some assurance that if I can survive, they can too.

1. Maintain your routine. A familiar routine offers a sense of reassurance that at least one thing in life hasn't changed, and the familiarity can help ground us through the holiday hustle. But if the idea of sticking to routine is more than you can bear, then honor your need to break tradition. In short, do what feels most soothing.

2.  Protect your time. Give yourself lots of breathing room, and avoid packing the schedule too full. Grieving is emotionally exhausting; plenty of rest will help minimize raw nerves through the flurry of shopping, school performances, and parties.

3.  Cut some slack and buy store-bought. Since grieving is naturally distracting and the ER isn't a great place to dine, let someone else operate the carving knife. Even the smallest kitchen disaster can quickly deplete coping skills. So if the family expects your legendary dinner rolls, then cheat with gourmet mashed potatoes and gravy from the deli.

4. Treat yourself to TLC, and lots of it. Tenderly soothing individual body parts is an attentive way to honor your emotional pain. Wear an especially soft pair of socks. Ask for whipped cream on your drive-thru mocha. Indulge in aromatherapy soap in the shower. While small gestures do nothing to erase the emotional heartache, they do offer your physical body a reminder that not all pleasure is lost.

5.  Skip the chaos. Take time to create peaceful surroundings. Turn off the computer, light a fragrant candle, grab a soft blanket, and binge-watch a good show.

6.  Feel joy. Without guilt. Go ahead, give yourself permission. If you find yourself humming to holiday music, don’t stop. The heart can feel joy the same time as sorrow, and it helps to balance the sadness. Allow yourself to experience moments of joy without guilt.

7.  Honor the past. Find a way to include your loved one’s memory in the festivities. Hang their stocking and fill it with cat toys or dog treats to share with the family pet on Christmas morning. Visit your loved one’s favorite coffee stand and pay it forward. Buy a small bouquet of balloons in your loved one’s favorite color and leave it in a public spot for a stranger to find on Christmas Eve.

8.  Heal others. Do something in the community that lifts your spirits. It's gratifying to help others, and is a good reminder that we aren’t alone in our struggles. It helps us keep perspective that the holidays can be challenging for many.

9. Hibernate. If you need to hide from the world to recharge your battery, take comfort knowing that many need to hibernate this time of year, and apologize to no one.

10. Cry. Give in to the tears. There is no shortage of raw emotions over the holidays, and crying is how we release intense feelings. Tears are healing—no matter what anyone says.

Even though it comes around like clockwork, the holidays can remain one of the most dreaded times of the year for those with a heart full of sorrow. Allow yourself to try a handful of the suggestions above as you navigate the emotional kaleidoscope that begins with those first pumpkin spice ads. Because if I can survive, then it's survivable.

Just don’t forget the whipped cream.

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