by Alexandra Kennedy
The holidays are a stressful time for families, with more gatherings and high expectations for harmonious interaction. Especially when a family member has died, the reality of loss is painfully accentuated. The holidays, abounding in family memories and traditions, can activate and intensify grief, even years later, especially when the death occurred during this season. Many clients have shared that this time of the year is one of the most difficult. Additionally, this can be a time of disappointment and depression as the realities of family history are experienced.
Twenty years ago just before Thanksgiving, my mother left a message on my answering machine: "Dad has cancer all through his bones. We just heard from the doctor. Don't call back because Dad doesn't want anyone to know." These words on a cold day in November initiated an often painful yet at times wondrous journey through grief. As with most people confronting the loss of a parent, I was not prepared for the intensity of the feelings that surged through me. I felt stunned, raw, overcome with panic. My father had advanced cancer! With this news I approached the holidays with dread, realizing these could be my last holidays with him.
My mother wanted Thanksgiving to be a perfect day. As we sat down for our meal, my father, showing no signs of the pain that I knew he was feeling, said grace, giving thanks and remembering all the grandparents who had died. Then he paused and said quietly, "Lord, we all pray for the love, strength, and courage we all may need in the coming months." Relieved that Dad had acknowledged this crisis in our family, my eyes filled with tears.
By Christmas Dad could no longer sit, for the cancer had eaten into the vertebrae in his back. He lay on the white sofa in the living room with a cream-colored afghan I had crocheted over his lap. We went through the family ritual of lighting a fire, eating pastry, playing Christmas music, opening gifts, as we always had. Every gesture, every word of this last Christmas became fraught with significance.
Two months later, after a short hospital stay, my father was gone. In the following weeks I felt cut adrift on a dark sea. The tides of grief moved through me; feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness, despondency and joy often bowling me over with their intensity. It was frightening to feel so out of control.
When the holidays came around the next year, I sank into a deep depression. Agonizing images of my father dying surfaced regularly. I dreaded these first holidays without him. I did not want to sit at my parents' dining table, with Dad's empty seat. I suggested to my mother that we create new rituals for the holidays, proposing a hike and picnic on Mt. Tamalpais instead of the midday meal. My mother shared my feelings of loneliness and turned to me to fill that empty space in her life, which created tensions between us. It was a sad and awkward day. Several times I burst into tears. Even surrounded by family, I felt lonely, but it helped to share what I was feeling.
It is difficult to grieve when other people are celebrating. However, where society does not support us in our grieving, nature does. Winter is a natural time for grieving. As the life force retreats within and darkness predominates, nature seems to remind us to turn our attention within, to move into the darkness and let go. The potential for healing is great during this time, with so much brought to the surface, so suppressing your feelings only complicates the healing process.
My 95-year-old mother died this spring. This will be my first holidays without either parent. I will be paying close attention to the suggestions below and hope they will help you too during the holidays.
1. Acknowledge this is a difficult time. Intense feelings may surface, so be gentle and patient with yourself. Give yourself permission to feel depressed, angry, sad, lonely. The first holidays after a loved one's death are often the hardest. Don't pressure yourself to "get back to normal."
2. Protect yourself if you are feeling raw and vulnerable. Avoid situations that upset you. Listen carefully to your body's needs for rest, good food and exercise. Be willing to say no to outside commitments.
3. Take 10 minutes to an hour each day to retreat to a special place in your home and reflect on your loved one. You may want to pray, contemplate or write. Allow the memories to surface. You may want to explore unresolved feelings, perhaps disappointments or wounds from past holidays. Use this time to clarify how you can best take care of yourself that day.
4. Acknowledge your loved one in some way. A friend shared how she lit candles at midnight mass for her deceased father. Another offered a toast to his wife. Another gave herself a gift she felt her mother would have given her.
5. Seek out the company of supportive friends and family. Respect your need to be alone.
6. Explore new ways to celebrate the holidays, planning activities that are enjoyable and meaningful. This is an opportunity to re-evaluate what is important for you during this season.
Alexandra Kennedy, M.A., is a psychotherapist in private practice and author of "Losing a Parent" (HarperCollins, 1991), "The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss" (Beyond Words, April 2001) and "Offerings at the Edge" (iUniverse, 2007). Alexandra has been interviewed in USA Today, the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Examiner, New Woman and the Boston Herald as well as on NPR's "Talk of the Nation," CNN's "Sonja Live," KQED's "Family Talk" and New Dimensions Radio. She is a faculty member at UC-Santa Cruz Extension and teaches at several graduate schools. Her articles have appeared in Yoga Journal, Mothering Magazine, Magical Blend and the California Therapist. Her web site, www.alexandrakennedy.com, offers resources for grieving, along with information about workshops.