For me and many of my survivor friends, two words can instantly strike terror in our hearts. One is Thanksgiving. The other is Christmas. It’s not that we don’t love the holidays — its just that both of these days can be excruciating for people experiencing loss.
The mere thought of an entire multi-generational family happily gathered around a heavily laden Thanksgiving table set with fine linens, lit taper candles, and bountiful platters of food can send a stressful reminder that our family is not complete. The simple idea of out-of-town loved ones “catching up” over hot coffee or excited children happily tearing wrapping paper off presents around the Christmas tree’s twinkling lights can instantly send a nostalgic jolt of pain to any heart. Sentimental TV commercials or the faintest strains of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” can cause eyes to tear as floods of memories overwhelm us.
Perhaps for all of us who have lost a loved one, the holidays are guaranteed to arrive with a measure of painful unfulfilled longing and plenty of priceless memories from years gone by.
But what now? How do we move forward without our loved ones? How do we even begin to celebrate these days centered around themes of gratefulness and merriment when our hearts are filled with pain and sadness?
Our culture seems to dictate what each holiday should be like and maybe even hints that we are set up for failure if we don’t eat turkey and stuffing, purchase gifts for every relative, send holiday cards, wear a cheerful red sweater, and bake numerous batches of cookies. None of these activities is absolutely necessary and may not even be on the radar of someone who is trying merely to “survive” a loss.
Waiting for a day which we assume will be agonizing can be painfully paralyzing. Because of this, many survivors of suicide loss find it helpful to have a plan — any plan. Somehow this seems to soften the blow of the unexpected. Some people want to be with friends or loved ones; others prefer to be alone. Some want to continue family traditions, some wish to try something new, while others want the day to be quietly ordinary. Each of these stategies can be helpful — trial and error will best tell what meets each person’s individual needs. The holidays can be filled with whatever meaningful elements we chose to incorporate into them.
Connecting with others survivors during these difficult times — both to share coping ideas and to offer support — can be very helpful. As well, keeping things simple and enjoying the loved ones around us can keep us focused both on survival and on a simple spirit of gratitude for the blessings in our lives.
Hoping you, too, can make a plan,