How to Enjoy the Holidays When Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

This post contains an excerpt from GETTING GRIEF RIGHT: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss, by Patrick O’Malley, PhD with Tim Madigan.

It was spring 1980 when my wife, Nancy, and I received some of the best news of our lives—she was pregnant with our first child.

On a Tuesday morning that September, we found ourselves sitting in her obstetrician’s office. Nancy, not due to deliver for three months, had been awakened the night before by a strange physical sensation.

She had wanted to get checked out, just to be safe. But after the examination that morning, her doctor said we needed t0 get to the hospital. Labor had begun. I remember how Nancy’s voice trembled.

“Can a baby this premature live?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “We will try to buy time. He will be a pipsqueak of a kid.”

Thirty-six hours later, on September 3, 1980, Ryan Palmer O’Malley was born, weighing a little over two pounds. You couldn’t have imagined a more fragile looking creature. He had been far from ready to leave his mother’s womb, yet there he was.

In the first few moments of his life, I was aware of the great risk of loving my son, but I was powerless to resist. From the first glimpse of Ryan, I knew he would have a place in my heart forever.

His early life was a succession of seemingly endless days and nights. We hovered over the side of his crib in the hospital, looking down at our boy who was hooked up to all this noisy equipment. His life was measured in minutes and hours. On several terrifying occasions, Ryan stopped breathing, and his medical team would rush in to resuscitate.

All this time, Nancy and I yearned to hold him, but his frailty and the equipment made that impossible. The most we could do was touch a tiny finger, rub a tiny arm.

Instead of cooing, the sounds around my son were the mechanical beeping of intensive care machines. Instead of that wonderful new baby smell, there was the pungent scent of antiseptic soap we had to use to scrub up before seeing him. Despite not being able to hold him, despite all the machines between him and us, we loved him deeply.

Early fall turned to Thanksgiving and then to Christmas. Our son gradually grew stronger. One day in January his doctor weaned him from the respirator. We could now hold him without the tangle of tubes and wires.

On March 9, 1981, our seventh wedding anniversary, we were finally able to bring our baby home to hold him, bathe him, kiss him, dance with him, feed him, and rock him. He smiled for the first time in those days. Though he was still fragile and underweight, we allowed ourselves to start imagining Ryan’s future. No parents loved a son more.

And then he was gone.

On Saturday night, May 16, 1981, we were treating him for a cold but not particularly concerned. We had been through much worse. But early Sunday morning our precious son suddenly stopped breathing.

I started CPR. Ryan’s doctor and an ambulance were at our house within minutes. His doctor administered a shot of adrenalin to his heart as the medical technicians continued CPR. Nancy and I silently prayed as we followed the speeding ambulance to the hospital.

The next several hours are a series of snapshots forever imprinted in my mind.

  • His physician coming into the waiting room with tears in his eyes, saying, “I could not save him.”
  • Holding Ryan’s body
  • Returning home without him
  • The heartbreak of our family and friends as we broke the news of his death
  • The dream-like, adrenalin-fueled rituals of visitation and funeral
  • The faces of all those who filled the church
  • The sight of his tiny casket by the altar
  • Seeing construction workers removing their hard hats as the funeral procession drove by
  • Leaving the cemetery on that sunny spring day

I have taken off work on the anniversary of Ryan’s death every year since that first year. I go to the cemetery to think about him and the years now behind me. Powerful feelings rise each time I see my son’s name on the grave marker: RYAN PALMER O’MALLEY. It grounds me in the hard reality—this really happened.

In my experience as both a grief therapist and bereaved father, the holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of the year for those grieving.

Many who have experienced the death of a loved one wish they could lie down for a nap on October 30 and awake again on January 2. This season can be challenging when the shadow of loss is present.

The collision between the cultural expectations of happiness and the personal reality of grief can create stress, confusion, and an increase in emotional pain for those who mourn. The gatherings of family and friends during this season may shine a brighter light on the absence of the one who has died.

If this is the first holiday season after the death of a loved one, there can often be a buildup of anxiety, anticipating how it will feel to be without the one who is gone. And, even if the loss occurred many years ago like mine, the holidays are always a reminder of what was and what might have been.

Confusion, yearning, exhaustion, sorrow, and all the other feelings that come with grief are absolutely normal during this time. Difficult but normal. Painful but normal. Grief is not a psychological abnormality or an illness to cure. Grief is about love. We grieve because we loved. Holidays may be a strong emotional connection to special times of remembering that love.

Here are eight ideas to help you enjoy the holidays while also honoring your loss.

Both And 

Enter into this season in a state of mind of “both and” rather than “either or.” Sorrow does not exclude all joy, and celebration does not eliminate all sorrow. Yet, it can be confusing to experience opposing emotions at the same time or feel your mood vacillate between light and dark.

Joy may transition into sadness in the blink of an eye. Contentment may suddenly shift into yearning. Both experiences have value because both are part of your grief story.

Be present to the moments of enjoyment, and at the same time, respect your feelings of loss.

Sights, Sounds, and Scents

Most who grieve prepare themselves emotionally for those significant moments during the holidays, such as sitting down for a holiday meal and attending parties; yet, some triggering experiences can occur when you least expect it.

A sight, sound, or smell may zip right past your defenses and cause an intense surge of sorrow. And sometimes, that surge may happen in public. To this day, certain Christmas carols I hear while shopping elicits a sudden sense of melancholy because of the strong identification they have for me with the first and only holiday season my son was alive.

We knew our loved one in a shared environment that is full of these sensory experiences that can provoke feelings of loss in an instant because of this connection created from past holiday seasons. This is perfectly normal and doesn’t mean that you’re going backward in your grief. Value these moments as important connections to the one who has died.

Social Splitting

The transition back into your work setting and your social groups after a loss can create a strain because you may have to act better than you feel in order to appear socially appropriate. This social splitting can be exhausting. Add to that the cultural expectation of being “up” for the holidays, and the exhaustion may be compounded.

This type of fatigue is normal. Monitor your energy, and be willing to moderate your social engagements, if needed. To recharge yourself from the drain of social splitting, spend ample time with those with whom you can fully be yourself and who will support you without judgment.

Approach and Avoid

Our most basic nature is to approach pleasure and avoid pain. Our more evolved nature can approach pain if we know there is an ultimate benefit in doing so. Our natural resistance to the pain of grief can create more pain.

Be intentional about scheduling time during this hectic season to approach your pain. Create rituals that represent the unique relationship you had to the one who died, such as listening to his or her favorite music or reading a favorite poem.

Light a candle or ring a bell to mark this special time of remembering and reflecting. Visit the cemetery or mausoleum if that provides a connection for you.

I’m grateful to our Japanese daughter-in-law who requests each holiday season that we participate in the Japanese custom of taking food to the gravesites where our son and other family members are buried. Her ritual has now become ours.

Seek Heathy Distractions

In a season fraught with overindulgences, be aware of the risk of numbing the feelings of loss through unhealthy escape behaviors. Also, know that it’s not possible to stay in the emotional intensity of grief without some relief, so give yourself permission to engage in healthy distractions.

The key to a healthy distraction is a behavior that allows you to pause your feelings for a moment so that you may come back, and be truly present to them later. My ritual of watching comedy holiday movies has served me well through the years.

Reach out to a trusted friend if you’re concerned about harmful escape behaviors during the holidays. Ask if you can be accountable to them for these behaviors and if they will participate with you in heathier activities that provide you with some respite from your grief.

Tell Your Story 

My professional training taught me that grief is a series of steps and stages to work through, which will lead to a conclusion called closure. My experience as a grieving dad did not at all match up with this psychological model.

Through my own grief and by working with so many who mourn, I came to understand that grief is an ongoing narrative of love, not an emotional finish line to be crossed.

Stories help us stay connected to those who have died and help us create meaning about what we have experienced. Finding a place for that story to be received is an important part of the grief journey.

Tell the story of your loved one as it relates to the holiday season to someone who listens well. Or spend some time writing specific memories related to your loved one and the holidays.

Acknowledge Someone Else’s Loss

Those who grieve want their loss and their loved one remembered, so consider making contact with someone who is grieving, as well. It doesn’t matter how long ago that loss may have been. Offer the compassion to others you desire for yourself.

Compassion literally means to suffer with and calls us to enter into the pain of another. Listen with gentle curiosity and an open heart. Consider making a donation to a cause that is relevant to the person who is grieving.

Be Forgiving 

Let self-compassion replace any self-criticism as you do your best to balance holiday enjoyment with your grief. Be forgiving of well-meaning others who may try to help you with your grief by “cheering you up.”

How you measure what’s significant and what’s trivial may have changed as you grieve. Patience may be needed when you’re in the midst of others during the holidays who experience the trivial as significant.

As you reflect on your loss, you may also benefit from reviewing your history with the loved one who has died, and offering and accepting forgiveness for the human flaws you each had that affected your relationship.

Remember always, you grieve because you loved. May you have peace and light as you embrace your story of love and loss this holiday season.

Adapted excerpt from GETTING GRIEF RIGHT: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss, by Patrick O’Malley, PhD with Tim Madigan. Sounds True, July 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About Dr. Patrick O'Malley

Patrick O’Malley, Ph.D. has been providing grief counseling and education to clients and colleagues for over thirty-five years. For more information, visit drpatrickomalley.com.

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