Lucille made many changes after Duane, her husband of 43 years, died last May. In the midst of her grief, she learned to handle her household finances, decided to remain in her home for a few more years and took a painting class at the local community center. She discovered that she shouldn’t use the auto maintenance shop near the mall because they would try to scare her into purchasing extra services, and she knew the best time to go to the fitness center to avoid the crowds.
It took her 35-year-old daughter saying, “Mom, I don’t know how you do it all!” for Lucille to realize how much she had grown over the last six months. Yet Lucille continued to grieve the loss of her husband. She talked to his picture at least once a day, and she rarely made it through a whole week without shedding some tears. She was experiencing normal, yet still painful, grief. But most days she felt like she was doing better than she had expected.
But now December was here and she was scared.
The holiday season was Duane’s favorite time of year, and he had always thrown himself whole-heartedly into the festivities. He had purchased a custom-designed Santa costume, beard and wig, and he would take multiple shifts at the Salvation Army kettle in front of the local grocery store. Lucille knew that the Christmas season would be filled with memories of Duane. Even worse, there would be many moments where his absence would be obvious: he wouldn’t be at the head of the family table, he wouldn’t be with her at the candlelight worship service and his Santa outfit would remain in the back of the closet.
Lucille’s grief intensified as she saw more and more Christmas displays in stores and her neighbors’ houses became adorned in holiday lights. After an especially sleepless night spent worrying, Lucille decided to face her concerns.
She crafted an email to her extended family with several requests and instructions, including:
- Her husband’s Santa outfit was going to be donated in one week unless someone else in the family wanted it. (Her son-in-law graciously accepted the costume and was happy to continue the tradition.)
- She described her concerns about attending the candlelight service without her husband, but explained that she desperately wanted to go. She hoped that some of her children and grandchildren would be able to accompany her for support. (Most of her children and grandchildren attended the service with her.)
- She hated the idea of her husband’s place being empty at the dinner table, so she developed a new seating chart. She assigned her youngest grandchild’s highchair to take the place of her husband’s usual spot. (Lucille was so busy feeding her grandchild that she hardly had time to think about the seating chart.)
- She wanted everyone to bring a favorite story about Duane to their holiday meal. They would begin by sharing some stories and then would get on with their meal and celebration. (The family laughed and cried and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.)
I always encourage families who are grieving during the holidays to take steps like Lucille did. When you directly acknowledge your grief and create a plan for dealing with painful holiday situations, your friends and family are more comfortable supporting you. This won’t remove all of your grief and sadness, but it will help you feel more in control and you’ll be in a better place to receive the blessings of the season.
Dr. Jason Troyer is a psychology professor, former counselor, grief researcher and consultant for businesses that want to better serve grieving families. He has written numerous aftercare materials, including the Finding Hope booklet series, and is a frequent presenter at funeral service professional events.This information is not intended to replace information from a mental health or medical professional. The reader should consult an appropriate professional in matters related to his or her physical and emotional health.