When Death Doesn’t Take A Holiday: Coping With Loss During Christmas

There can be few in this world who don’t look at the grieving parents of the Sandy Hook school shooting and wonder how they’ll possibly survive Christmas just days after the brutal killing of their children; particularly children of an age when the excitement and magic of Christmas is long awaited and exuberantly embraced.

Do they take down the tree and simply put the holiday away? Do they struggle through for the sake of that child’s memory? If they have other children, surely they are obligated to continue the celebration for their sake…how do they? How do you translate a holiday meant for love, giving and family when your own has been obliterated by a killer with a gun?

Of course, beyond these and others families of homicide victims, there are also those whose loved ones passed from illness, accidents or suicide. For all, what follows grief and loss is the list of “firsts”: the first birthday without them; the first anniversary, the first…Christmas. It’s always painful; for the Sandy Hook families, the proximity of their loss to that “first” Christmas will surely make it all the more so.

There are really two questions: 1.) How does the one suffering the loss cope? and 2.) How do those around them respond to their loss? Both tasks are exacerbated by the general festivities and celebratory ambiance of the “happiest holiday of the year.” It’s a very particular conundrum.

My father died on December 13th of 1999, twelve days before Christmas. An abrupt middle-of-the-night knock on the door and all plans changed: trips were cancelled, celebrations were co-opted by a wake and funeral, and though ancillary family did their best to transcend and adjust to our loss, the strain of Christmas gatherings with a new widow (who, I might add, was surprisingly stoic) and grieving children proved difficult. I remembered feeling angry too much of the time; hurt that few talked about my father, fewer asked how I was doing (even when asking how my mother was holding up), and the obligation to not ruin the holiday for everyone else was palpable and excruciating. Imagine singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” around the piano while mourning the twelve days since your father died.

I think my Jewish friends – who don’t traditionally celebrate Christmas – have the right idea: sitting Shiva. While the Jewish tradition prescribes specific steps and timing, a more secular take, one many of my circle have employed and in which I’ve participated, involves taking the time to sit and share memories, look at pictures, talk of the loved one; speak of their accomplishments, laugh at their beloved quirks; raise a toast in their warm memory and openly share grief at their loss. Unfortunately, too many find it uncomfortable talking to someone who’s experienced a death; confused about what to say, if to mention the name, and, at a time like Christmas, just how much to celebrate the holiday.

Given my experience, my many conversations with others in similar circumstances, and my general observation of what has worked for those who managed the task with some success and compassion, I’ve put together a compilation of the most helpful suggestions offered by a wide range of people. Take any that resonate for you. Add your own. Survive.

For those with a friend or family member dealing with a death:

  1. If in doubt about what to do, offer, or say, just talk with the grieving party. Ask. Don’t presume. And…
  2. Don’t disappear. Too many grieving people told me they felt like pariahs, as if everyone in their life was distancing themselves due to their discomfort related to #1.
  3. Talk about the person who’s died. Everyone I spoke to mentioned that they found it hurtful when people were obviously not talking about them. In fact, most loved hearing the stories and shared memories. It touched them to know the deceased was remembered by others; was loved and enjoyed by those in their circle.
  4. Don’t go for fake comfort. There is none. Just be there. Offer an ear. Hug often. Let them cry without saying stupid things like, “everything’s going to be all right,” “he had a good life,” “at least he died in his sleep,” or “they’re in a better place.” Not much of that works when you’re grieving. Go, instead, with the more generic, “My thoughts are with you,” “he was a great kid/father/husband,” or “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Words are usually meaningless at this point; the silent message of love and compassion speaks loudest.
  5. Speaking of which, regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs, yours or theirs, don’t assume grief can be overcome by God. Go with #4, unless they go with the God angle first.
  6. Ask if they still want to celebrate the holidays. If they do, ask how they want to do them….then do it that way. Don’t do what you “think they need”; do what they asked. Without debate.
  7. If they don’t want to do the holidays, respect that. Again, without debate, without judgment, without pep talks about “but it’ll cheer you up” or “distract you from your sadness.” Just quietly take the tree down, stick around to watch cable, and make lots of food.
  8. Leave when asked. No matter how much comfort you feel you can impart, sometimes the grieving party really does need to be alone. It’s part of the process; honor it. Then come back later. But…
  9. Call first. Never “drop by” with fake reasons. They know what you’re doing and while it comes from a good place, sometimes interrupting a good cry feels… disruptive. Unless they’re suicidal, respect their privacy and schedule your visits just as you did prior.
  10. Talk as much or as little as they want or can endure. Listen more. BE THERE and be silent, if need be. Mainly, look for and listen to their cues. They’ll let you know what they need. Deliver it. There will be another Christmas next year.
Heartache...photo by  Lorraine Devon Wilke

Heartache…photo by Lorraine Devon Wilke

As for those who’ve suffered a loss themselves: 

  1. Reverse 1-10 above; put yourself on the other side of each one and respond accordingly.
  2. Realize those who love you are doing their best to be there for you, even if they screw up on every count. Try to be patient.
  3. Be clear about just how much holiday you can manage and don’t be afraid to shut the whole damn thing down if that’s what you need or feel is all you can stand. It’s your grieving process; you’re allowed to conduct it as you see fit.
  4. If you have other children in the house, be candid about what you’re feeling; talk to them about what they’re feeling, but be aware that children grieve differently; they can compartmentalize in a very unique way and celebrating the holidays can run concurrent to their grief.
  5. However, if you feel you truly cannot conduct a meaningful celebration, even for their sake, don’t be ashamed to delegate. Ship them out to other friends and family members for festivities and then do the best you can when they’re home. They get it. They’re grieving too.
  6. Cry as much as you want. Really. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I actually heard someone say of a grieving friend, “don’t you think they need to move on?” No, not unless they’re ready. Take as long as you need.
  7. Define who “your people” are and then reach out to them as needed, day or night. If they really are “your people” (thank you, Grey’s Anatomy), they will have their phone at the ready any time, day or night. Don’t be chintzy in using them; they’re honored to be your person.
  8. If you do feel like celebrating, do; without guilt or the sense you should be home crying. There’s plenty of time for both. Take those moments of joy when they come.
  9. If you observe #8, encourage those accompanying you to talk about your loved one. Make toasts. Let others know you’re willing to hear about them; in fact, you want to. It helps make the occasion more meaningful for all of you.
  10. This is your “first” Christmas, as defined earlier. The first without your loved one. It’s likely going to be the most painful Christmas you will ever have. Hold on to the hope that the next one will be less so.

For those of us watching the news and feeling the sorrow and tragedy that seems to have played out too often in recent weeks and months, the sense of helplessness is unavoidable. But as we talk, rage, write, and listen, we’re slowing getting beyond that initial response to something more proactive, something with direction and drive. We will celebrate Christmas, those of us who can. We’ll make it the best it can possibly be and then after we put away the ornaments and take down the tree, we’ll corral the empathy and compassion we’ve been feeling and act. So that no one ever has to find a way to “endure” a holiday season we are all meant to celebrate.

Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on TwitterFacebook and Rock+Paper+Music; for her archive at Addicting info click here; details and links to her other work: www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.