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When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One: Handling the Holidays

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For families who've lost someone they love, the holidays can seem more like something to survive than to enjoy. We need a plan to help us get through what can be a very difficult time of year.

“Happy Thanksgiving!”

“Merry Christmas!”

“Happy New Year!”

As the end of the year approaches, everywhere we turn someone is telling us we should be happy.

But for families who’ve recently lost someone they love, the holidays can seem more like something to survive than to enjoy. The traditions and events that can add so much joy and meaning to the season are punctuated with painful, repeated reminders of our loss. Many of us wish we could find a quiet place to hide until Jan. 2.

Since we likely can’t hide away, it makes sense to have a strategy as we approach the holiday season. We need a plan that will help us get through what can be a very difficult time of year.

Our daughter, Hope, was born on a Monday before Thanksgiving. I thought we’d always be celebrating her birthday around that holiday. In a sense we do – but of course it’s not the way I thought it would be.

When that first Thanksgiving rolled around six months after Hope died, I was in the lowest part of my grief. I couldn’t bear to do a big family thing, fearing that perhaps no one would say her name or that I wouldn’t have space to just be sad. But we didn’t want to stay home in our quiet house and feel the gloom closing in, either.

We felt we needed to do something completely different, make a new memory. So we drove to Asheville, N.C., stayed in a bed-and-breakfast, visited the Biltmore mansion and went to the movies.

We did have some fun, though our sadness came along for the ride. Still, we did our best to pursue joy and celebrate life together in new and different ways. The change of scenery lightened our load of sorrow.

Shortly before making the trip, I went by a friend’s house. She was one of those people who never seemed to really “get” our loss, and seemed to want me to hurry back to being happy. When I told her about our plans, she said, “That should be fun!” The look she gave me said I was supposed to agree wholeheartedly with her.

“Yes, it should,” I said.

I didn’t know how to explain that when you’ve lost a member of your family, even the best of times are painfully incomplete. Someone is missing. Even the best days, the happiest events, are tinged with sadness.

Holidays raise hard questions for grieving families. How do you get a Christmas tree without Dad, when he always picked out the best one? How does a child find a gift for Dad without Mom there to help? How does a wife get through New Year’s Eve with no one to kiss at the stroke of midnight?

There are no simple answers, no easy ways to get through these important, memory-laden days. But there are a few things that can help bring back some joy amid the sadness.

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