December 2015

A Widow’s Guide to Holiday Survival

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

It’s been 14 years since my husband passed away and I am just now, this year, far enough along in the grief process to publicly share a few thoughts on the topic of holidays and how to survive them. While that may be shocking to some readers, if you have lost a spouse, perhaps you can relate. When your life partner dies, moving on can be like slogging through knee-deep mud. And when the holidays come along, you may just feel as though you are sinking in quicksand.

I remember vividly the first holiday party I attended as a widow. Well-meaning friends invited me to a community event that included a buffet dinner and a band. I was assured that other single people would be attending. I managed to get dressed up and drive myself there, armed with a handbag full of tissues—just in case. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to take my own car for purposes of escape should the need arise.

Have you ever been in a roomful of people and still felt completely alone? I made it through dinner, smiled through introductions and mingled as best I could. But when the band started up, I was immediately struck by the predominance of couples, all laughing, celebrating and dancing the night away. The high energy numbers didn’t affect me so much, although I found myself sitting solo, awkwardly tapping my toes under a table for eight. I went to the restroom to kill some time, freshen my lipstick and dab at the mascara threatening to give away my “normal person” disguise. Returning to the party, the sentimental, sappy tunes and the slow dancing began. I had no desire to dance; I was asked more than once. But that’s when I knew I had to get out of there.

As I said a few gracious goodbyes and headed toward the exit, a fog rolled in. As far as I remember, it was a crisp, clear December night, but I cried so hard all the way home, I could barely see out of the windshield. My chest heaved as I stumbled in the front door, met by the sound of silence and the cold reality of all that was missing. It occurred to me at that moment that no one knew or cared if I made it home. I was alone, and I wanted my life back.

I’ve since been through the many stages of grief, not in any particular order and sometimes all at once. Meanwhile, I dated. I fell in love. I got married again and started a brand new life. None of that erases what went before or minimizes the pain of my loss, but it has certainly paved the way to a place of acceptance and peace.

Whether you are recently widowed or have been on your own for a while, holidays can be emotionally tricky. What soothes the ache for one might rip off the scab for another. That’s why this advice should be taken with a whole shaker full of salt and maybe a pitcher of margaritas. Here are a few strategies for consideration:

Stop pretending
Wherever you may be on the journey through grief and loss, chances are you spend a lot of time pretending to be “fine.” It’s okay not to be fine. Your world is topsy-turvy, your heart is an anvil, your emotions wrung-out rags. Yet somehow you are slogging through the season of celebration, going about the business of carrying on. Maybe you’re at a party or the grocery store or the mall. People will ask, “How are you?” Be prepared. This doesn’t necessarily mean you invite them to your pity party right there amidst the Salvation Army bell ringers and the guy dressed up as Santa. But it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’m struggling,” or “This is painful,” or “I just don’t have the words to talk about it right now.”

People who ask mean well. In fact, they are the brave ones—much braver than those who would choose to ignore you altogether out of fear of saying the wrong thing. If you are up to talking, take advantage of the opportunity to be honest, perhaps share a story or memory of your loved one. Remember that the topic of your loss is awkward for others, too.

Acknowledge their kindness and let them know if there is something specific they can do to help. Most people genuinely want to comfort you, but most have no clue what to say or do. I’ve been there, and I still don’t know, because it’s different for everyone….

Adjust expectations
Holidays, in general, come with a boatload of expectations: yours and everyone else’s. Stress levels are high as we scurry around decking the halls and making spirits bright. This is hard enough when we’re on solid ground. But when our hearts are broken, and we’re in the quagmire of grief, it’s more than overwhelming. It’s ominous. So, take a deep breath and give yourself a free pass. Maybe this year you aren’t up to dragging out the decorations. Don’t. Perhaps a few simple ornaments will suffice. Or, maybe you really want to go all out and do it the way you always did. My first Christmas alone, I decorated per usual with the twinkling white lights, Victorian style ornaments, lacy tree skirt and lighted angel on top. I sat in front of the tree that took me several hours to trim, lit a firelog in the fireplace, opened a bottle of wine and had myself a good cry.

The tree now lives in a black plastic trash bag in my attic in case I get the urge to revive it (not likely any time soon). Over the years, I have adjusted my vision of the holiday season to suit myself, my family and my new way of life. It’s liberating to ignore the pressure to decorate, entertain or even feel jolly. I feel what I feel when I feel it, and that’s okay.

Take care of yourself and the children
If you are alone, as I was, then concern yourself with your own care. Visit a friend or take a trip during the holidays. Go see a funny movie, schedule a massage, order in a pizza in lieu of turkey or Christmas goose. If you get asked to a party or out on a date, go if you are up to it. If not, make no excuses. When your spouse has died, you have fulfilled your vows and you don’t owe anyone any explanations. It’s your turn to do as you please, whether that means sulking in your pajamas (not recommended, but sometimes necessary) or dancing the night away with a stranger. Try not to worry about John Q. Public’s opinion. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says, just so you get through the night, and the next day and the next…

What does matter, particularly if children are involved, is that you help them adjust. While you may want to make the holidays as normal as possible for them, remember that they are affected by the loss, too, and tiptoeing around it is not going to help them long-term. You might use the holidays as an opportunity to allow them to open up and express what they remember, what they miss and how they are feeling. Depending upon their ages, whether they are living at home or grown, you might engage them in some way of honoring or memorializing the lost loved one and/or creating some new holiday traditions to mix with the old. Whatever you do, don’t pretend like everything is jolly good. Children can no more skip over their grief than you can, and if the feelings are not processed in a healthy way, they will come back in an unhealthy form.

Look back but move forward
The goal of grief is not to somehow “get over” the loss of a loved one, but to learn to get on with life; and that takes time—sometimes a very long time. It’s perfectly normal to look back with fond memories at the life you had before. After all, our experiences and the people with whom we share them become a part of who we are. But in order to heal, we must keep taking tiny steps forward. Holidays are notorious for bringing up all sorts of emotions we may have thought were well behind us, and sometimes we have to take a giant leap backwards in order to appreciate how far we’ve come.

I wish there were a magic cure for the pain and sadness that comes with losing a spouse. I wish I could tell you there is a timeline for grief. I can tell you this with all honesty: Happiness will gently creep its way back in, along with intermittent waves of sadness that become more tolerable over time. 

If you find that the holidays are truly unbearable and your sadness is at a tipping point, please reach out. A private counselor or an organized grief support group can be helpful. For information regarding area grief support, contact Hospice Care of the Lowcountry at (843) 706-4095 or visit online at hospicecarelc.org. Look for counseling & bereavement under Services on the homepage.

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