The year after a major loss is invariably a Year of Firsts. All of the usual dates and holidays keep coming around on the calendar — except this year they’ve all changed. Someone essential is missing. Facing a first birthday, first Mother’s Day, first anniversary, first Thanksgiving and Christmas without that person can feel all kinds of wrong.
Sometimes it sucks up all the mental energy we can gather, just to make it through this Year of Firsts. It can feel like we’re living in an alternate reality compared to everyone around us. That’s because we kind of are. Our daily lives have changed profoundly while others’ have not.
I remember driving around our suburb of New York the first December after my mother died, passing the bright lights draped across houses, watching families pull Christmas trees off the tops of their cars and drag them toward the front door. Traffic lights went through their predictable rotations from green to yellow to red. Crossing guards held up traffic with their handheld stop signs as schoolchildren crossed the road.
Outside of my car, the minutes ticked away as usual. But inside my car, nothing felt normal. Nothing at all. Everything I’d counted on and believed to be solid and true had turned flimsy and temporary overnight. The world suddenly had a huge mother-sized hole in it that sucked up all the light. How could everyone else not see this and feel it, too?
The first year after a death is all about re-learning how to live in the world without our significant other. Finding this new normal is a slow-growth process. It takes time, but as bereavement specialists often say, time doesn’t heal us on its own. It’s what we do with that time that makes a loss start to feel bearable.
If you’re facing a first holiday season without a loved one, some of these tips may help ease your passage into 2018.
- Remember: It’s normal to feel abnormal. Losing something close to you is an abnormal situation. Why would we expect ourselves to feel normal afterward? If someone criticizes you for your sadness or implies that your grieving is somehow “wrong”, their discomfort is what’s showing, not yours.
- Have faith that your disorientation won’t last forever. The parallel world you may feel part of will blend back in with everyone else’s before long. You’ll re-enter the flow of humanity with knowledge you didn’t have before. You’ll be more attuned to human suffering. The world needs your empathy. You’ll have more of it to give than ever before.
- Gift yourself with patience and lovingkindness. The story of your life has just lost a major character. It takes a while for a new plot line to emerge and gain traction. While you’re waiting, try to do one small, good thing for yourself every day. Maybe it’s taking a long, hot shower, or playing your favorite music while you’re driving, or putting lavender oil on your pillow at night. (Two points if it’s a small thing you start looking forward to each day.)
- Share detailed stories of your loved one with compassionate others. It’s a terrific way to bring the energy of that person into the room and keep their memory vibrant and alive. Stretch out sentences to include specific details. “Dad would have loved this” can be expanded to include, “Dad would have loved this because…. Remember the time when he….?”
- Create a new, forward-oriented tradition. Holiday traditions you shared with your loved one may be hard to repeat in his or her absence. Instead, you can start a tradition in absentia that can be repeated moving forward. Light a special candle in memory of your loved one and place it on a nearby table when you open presents. Make a special memorial toast when the family gathers. Create an ornament from a photo of the person and hang it on the tree. Commit to doing this again next year, and the year after. The possibilities are as unique and special as your loved one was to you.
- Bring the beauty of art into the season. Paint, cook, sing, write, draw, listen to or perform something that your loved one would appreciate. My father loved the music of Frank Sinatra. One of my most vivid memories of him is sitting in his chair in our family room, doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle with Frank Sinatra emanating from the stereo speakers. Overheard now in our kitchen some December evenings: “Alexa, please play Frank Sinatra songs”
- Remember: your relationship hasn’t ended. It’s changed. Much of the pain we feel after a death comes from believing we now have to sever the relationship. This isn’t true. We can stay connected in the spiritual world and reaffirm that connection in the physical world. At least once a day over the holidays, say out loud: “I love you, Mom.” “I love you, Dad.” Say their names out loud. Feel the quiet power of that love. It’s still there.
- If your loved one died during the holidays last year, it means you’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the death. This brings up its own particular sadness, as well as memories of what was happening this time last year. Remember that grieving in a process of ebb and flow. The pain comes, and then subsides, and then comes back, and subsides again. It’s the body’s form of self-protection. We can only handle so much emotional pain at once. Look for ways you can include or celebrate your loved one in this year’s festivities. It’s solid insurance for the future – next year, you’ll recall this year’s activities at anniversary time, instead of associating the holidays only with the loss.
As always, if the sadness feels unmanageable, if you’re unable to function on a daily basis, or if you feel yourself sinking into a place of deep despair, please reach out for professional help. Many people and resources are available and willing to help you. Most cities offer local bereavement services through support groups or bereavement centers.
One of grief’s most heartbreaking aspects is how alone it makes us feel, but close to 80,000 people die every month in the United States. That means a whole lot of other people know exactly how you’re feeling right now. Loss is part of the shared human experience. We’re tribal beings, meant to grieve in community. No one needs to go through this alone.
Hope Edelman is the author of seven nonfiction books, including Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers. She is a grief and loss coach and co-leads Motherless Daughters Retreats for women who have lost their mothers. Visit her website at www.loselivegrow.com.