Bereaved Families Corner
DON’T JUST SURVIVE THE HOLIDAYS — SUCCEED
By Deirdre Belton
Like clockwork, right about now the specter of the holidays begins to loom large, and if, in your sorrow, you are someone who is filled with apprehension at the thought, take heart. You are not alone, and gloom is not the only thing being served up on the menu this year. On the contrary, not only can you survive the holidays, you can actually find ways to make the most of them.
You would have to live like a mole in this country to avoid the holiday hoopla that begins during the summer months and continues on until the bills arrive in January. In August the catalogs arrive advertising the pre-Christmas sales. Newspapers and magazines are well into their fall and winter collection campaigns. We in the Northeast have already pre-bought our heating oil, and we still have time at the beach to think about how we are going to cope with those seemingly never-ending weeks through Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, Christmas and on into the New Year.
Well, I’m here to tell you that this is do-able. If Madison Avenue can plan ahead, so can you. It takes careful thought, some imagination and no small amount of fortitude, but it is not impossible. Holidays do not come as a surprise; they roll around the same time every year. As you read this there is still time to make these next weeks work in your favor. The things you might want to be thinking about as you plan are: time, money, tradition, needs vs. wants and obligation vs. desires.
Time: How much of this precious commodity is at your disposal? Do you work outside the home? What are your responsibilities inside the home? Are you the primary wage earner as well as caregiver? Assess how much time you can devote to holiday preparations and make that stick. If you send out holiday greeting cards, perhaps you can decide that you will write out two or three each evening starting now and have them ready to mail on the day of your choosing. If you are going to shop for gifts that must be mailed, you might want to consider catalog companies that will do the gift wrapping and mailing for you. If there are special foods that you make for the holidays, think about cooking ahead and freezing dishes while you still have the energy to do it.
Money: In our grief, we sometimes go overboard at this time of the year, thinking that spending inordinate amounts of cash on others will assuage our sorrow and add to the happiness of others. That might sound like a plan, but happiness cannot be bought, and those bills will show up right on schedule long after the wrapping paper has been discarded. Think about drawing up a list of those who bring a smile to your lips and a light to your eyes. Do you realize what a wonderful gift might be? Sit down and handwrite a personal letter to each one on your list and tell them just why they are so important to you and what it has meant to have them in your life–especially at this time of year. You can do this even for the little one, whose parents will save it for them to read when they can appreciate it. Such a letter can always be accompanied by a small remembrance, particularly for the children. Consider giving a donation to your favorite charity in honor of your friends and loved ones. They won’t have a box to open, but they will know that someone’s life is a little bit better that it was done in their name.
Tradition: Think about your religious or cultural traditions. Do they bring you structure, meaning, comfort and stability? If you can say yes to any or all of those questions, it’s probably a good idea to stick with what you know. All else may be in chaos around you, but if the same decorations go up, the same food is served off those special, once-a -year plates, and certain religious ceremonies are observed, you just might find an oasis in the emotional sea that has been wracked by storm and tempest. But perhaps you have always done all the cooking and inviting. As one friend of mine put it when her adult daughter asked what she would be making for the holiday dinner this year (her second since the death of her husband) she never hesitated. “Reservations,” she replied.
New circumstances can call for new strategies. Go to a restaurant, travel to a new place, let folks know that you would be delighted to share their holiday with them and you’ll bring your famous pie as an offering for dessert. Volunteer at a hospital or nursing home on that difficult day. The bottom line is don’t be afraid to try new things, people and places if it works for you. Stay with what you know or reach out into uncharted territory. Whatever you decide to do, ask yourself if it meets your needs.
Needs vs. Wants: This area of reflection seems to be more emotional for many of us at this time of year. We may want all kinds of things for our loved ones and ourselves: the perfect meals, decorations, enough time together, no sadness — the list is long. But what is it that we really need? Arrangements may not be perfect this year, but we’re together. The gifts may not be as lavish, the meal might be takeout, but love is still expressed. Our sadness and sense of loss may be overpowering, but we will take a moment to be grateful for those still in our lives, for possibilities yet to come and for the chance to make a difference in ways large and small, known and unknown. So many of us feel that we have failed if our efforts don’t rival the stuff of dreams or magazine covers. There is enough stress in our lives without such unrealistic pressure. Most of it self-generated anyway.
Obligation vs. Desire: This is usually the discussion that produces the most angst. It’s not that we don’t know what we want or what we need. It’s the sense that we have to do things in a certain way or see certain people because it is expected of us. Let’s be clear. When children are involved, every effort should be made to see that their holidays are as meaningful as possible. There is nothing worse for a child than to get the message that because the adults in the house are suffering, we are all going to suffer. That’s not grieving together, that’s selfish. But if you don’t have the energy to pull it off, what do you do?
Remember all of those nice people at the funeral who told you to call on them if “there is ever anything I can do?” Now is the time to call in your markers. When my mother died suddenly at the age of 42 and left behind a shattered husband and seven children ages five to sixteen, Dad took those words quite literally. Thanksgiving was six weeks after the funeral, and he called the neighbor next door and reminded her how kind she had been to offer. “We’ll be eight for dinner,” he said, “what time would you like us to be there?”
I have always had a vision of that dear woman picking herself up off the floor and croaking out, “How wonderful” into the phone. In the end, she made it so very lovely and while it wasn’t easy for any of us, it was a sign to seven kids that life continues and that there are people out there who do care. My father knew that he couldn’t do it, but that somehow it had to be done. So, he pulled himself together and asked for help. What an example to us. After that day, we knew that while our lives were dramatically and sadly different, they were not over. We could do this.
And we did.
But what about those other social obligations that are so time consuming and emotionally exhausting for bereaved people? Ask yourself this question. “If I say no to so and so (thank you, but I won’t be cooking, traveling, buying expensive gifts this year), what’s the worst thing that can happen?” The worst has already happened, the rug has been pulled out from under you, but you are still standing, People who love you will immediately understand. Others will adjust. Some will never be happy about it, and they will have to learn to live with disappointment. The choice is yours. Exercise it or not but do is what’s right for you and your family.