Thursday, December 28, 2017

Remembrance And Holiday Revelry

My mother never liked having a birthday just three days after Christmas. She felt the occasion got lost as Christmas and New Year's celebrations overshadowed her special day. It seemed like an afterthought with birthday presents too often doubling as Christmas presents -- a complaint when she was a child -- and too often being forgotten amid holiday revelries by those who should have remembered.

If she were still alive, my mother would be celebrating her 105th birthday today. However, the birthday celebrations -- such as they were -- stopped in her mid-sixties with her untimely death just before the holiday season began. And since she left us, I can't help but remember her birthday every year when the day comes around just after Christmas, just before New Year;s.

Death, grief and the holidays seem an uneasy mix, but this is reality for many. This is a time for togetherness and rejoicing but is also a time for remembering, for bittersweet days, as we miss those lost. Losing a loved one, missing a spouse or parent or child or special friend is painful any time of the year, but may be especially intense during the holiday season.

How do you deal with grief and painful losses and memories during the holidays and early into a new year, another year, without that special person?

1. Find new traditions that bring you comfort in this new reality.  Perhaps the first holiday season after a significant loss, you might choose to do something entirely different -- to celebrate with another family member or friend, to take a trip or engage in different activities. While some do find comfort in continuity, others find solace in breaking from old traditions altogether.

My friend Chuck suffered two horrific losses around Christmas some years ago. A few days before Christmas in 1987, his brother was killed in a helicopter crash and was laid to rest on Christmas Eve. Three years later, as he was driving his mother to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, she suffered a fatal heart attack. And Christmas has never been quite the same. He has chosen, since her death, to spend holidays away from home with his spouse, often at a tropical beach, basking in sunshine while also remembering lost loved ones in his prayers at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass he always attends.

2.  Embrace the love you do have as you grieve your loss.  Mixing gratitude with grieving, loving moments with treasured family and friends to balance the loneliness of loss, can help a great deal. I've noticed the value of this particularly this holiday season with my two dearest friends.

My friend Mary lost her beloved husband John in early December and my friend Tim lost his wonderful mother only a week before Christmas Eve. Both losses are devastating and life-changing. But both of these dear friends have experienced love all around them -- the love of family and long-time friends and people they might not have known as well but who have stepped in with surprising emotional generosity to say a word of comfort, to share memories of the lost loved one, to extend an unexpected kindness. It all adds up to feelings of inclusion as both simultaneously grieve a loved one and celebrate the holidays with others so dearly loved.

3. Find comfort not only in the company of others, but also in moments alone.  Those alone times are important as you go through the grief process. Don't be shy about expressing a need for some time to reflect, to remember, to cry, as much as you appreciate the support others are extending to you. During my week with Mary after her husband's death, she would occasionally express the need to be quiet, to "be with him for awhile". She would go in their room and close the door and simply be with her pain and allow herself to feel his changed presence and the major transition that his passing had triggered. Then she would emerge, warm, refreshed, ready to engage with loved ones present. Listening to your own needs at a time when you have such support from others is important. There will come a time when your loss is less raw and more daily reality, when your family and friends will return to their everyday lives and work -- caring still, but perhaps not as present -- and having learned to be alone with your grief will serve you well when that time comes.

4. Reach out to those who are also in pain. This can mean participating in a grief support group. It can mean bringing happiness to those in very different circumstances with volunteer work. It can mean sharing memories and comforting family members and friends who are also missing your lost loved one.

During the holiday season in 1980, my brother, sister and I were in shock: our father had died of a heart attack in July of that year and, four months later, our mother also had a fatal heart attack. We were orphaned in young adulthood -- my sister only 25, my brother and I in our early to mid-thirties. But we became aware that others were in shock and pain, too: our aunts, especially my father's sister Aunt Molly, who had never married. Our father was her only surviving relative and our mother her best friend.

And there were several close, long-time friends of our parents who grieved them as family.

Reaching out to them, comforting them, crying with them and remembering with them was a significant part of coming to terms with our own loss.

5. Be inclusive of lost loved ones in your holiday -- and everyday -- traditions. Make those you've lost a part of family celebrations -- with stories and memories shared with smiles as well as tears. Or with recipes and traditions that came from them. And by simply pausing to remember.

This is the 38th holiday season -- and birthday -- without our mother. And yet she is very much with us. My brother Mike, a doctor who works and lives with his wife and two children in Bangkok, Thailand most of the year, makes it a point to come back to the U.S. during the holiday season. And one of his traditions is to visit our parents' grave either on Christmas Eve or on our mother's birthday.

This year, he brought his five-year-old son Henry, named for the paternal grandfather we never knew, to Forest Lawn. Mike explained that this was the grave of Henry's grandparents whom he would never know. Henry was quiet. Looking down at the grave, he spoke softly to his deceased grandparents: "I love you and I miss you." And he gave a traditional Thai wai (a bow of respect with hands pressed together as if in prayer.)

It was a special, quiet moment, bringing past and present together, in a spirit of love that lives on for days and years and decades through sweet traditions and warm memories.



  1. Kathy, this is such a timely and important post. It's been tough for a lot of people this season. We're doing one of those tradition breaks this year in celebrating New Year's at the home of a friend whose husband died at Thanksgiving. We always were together at another friend's home and Cheri said she would like to host this year, partly, I think, not to return to her last really happy new year's with John at our friend's, but also to have something to do, to prepare for, to even clean up after. I suspect we'll all be seeing a lot more loss at holidays and otherwise as we age up and we must always remember these things.

    Thinking of you, your mom, your beautiful nephew and his family (and the cats!) this week. Happy New Year.

  2. Kathy, I have been a silent visitor but this post hit close to home. Beautifully written. Thank you.

    My dad died in 1970 - 3 days before Christmas. Our family recovered somewhat from the loss during Christmas, but it was always part of my holiday in some small way. But then my mom, who lived with me for 8 years was admitted into Assisted Living during December. Her disabilities prevented her from coming home for holidays. That first Christmas was really hard. She lived in AL for 2 years and 1 year in a nursing home - all sad sad times for me - especially Christmas. My mom died in 2014 - 3 days after Christmas.

    I guess you could say my holiday has now been permanently altered in my mind. I do my best to keep that sadness to myself. No sense in impacting the happiness of the holidays of my dear dear family with my loss.

    Two days ago I visited their graves - as I do every Christmas. During that visit my brain floods with all kinds of memories - good and bad - of my time with them and, yes, there are tears. And that, too, is now part of my holiday. I go by myself - intentionally. My alone time in grief is so important to me.

    Thank you for sharing this with your readers. It is very important for everyone to remember - this holiday is not sun shine and light for everyone.

  3. Dear Dr. McCoy, I haven't words to thank you for this post. My father died in November, 1960; my mother, October, 2001. Both times, some fundamental bit of me feared becoming an orphan. I had to learn self-compassion. Not easy. In raising family, working hard, learning to be kind despite fatigue and fear, it's not always easy to be kind to ourselves. As a grandfather, I guess that's the new challenge. I do my best. I do my best.

  4. Thanks for this post. I'm going to send a copy to my son who lost his wife in August... He really struggled --especially through the holidays... It's HARD.

    Happy New Year to you.

  5. My brother's birthday was the 27th and he felt the same way ... that the occasion got lost as Christmas and New Year's celebrations overshadowed his special day. He would be turning 73; alas, he died a long time ago. Anyway, all good advice, esp. #4.

  6. Dear Kathy, thank you. Peace.

  7. You always speak such wonderful words of wisdom. Thank you.