I love the holidays. I easily get caught up in the lights and the traditions, the celebrations, the family and faith time. I love the cooking and decorating, and finding just the right gift for my loved ones. But in November, 2008, I received the phone call that changed my life and the lives of my two young children, when we learned that my husband had been in an accident and wouldn’t be coming home. We went from planning for a season of celebration to planning a funeral, and ultimately, a move back to my home here in Topeka. With two small children to care for, I had to make a lot of decisions quickly, and I probably didn’t engage in a lot of intentional self-care at the time. But I did do some things instinctively, which I believe helped me through a challenging time of year.
- I put my kids and myself on a schedule. Moving meant that the kids left their school, and I left my job. It would have been easy to sink into a depression, but that would not have helped the situation at all. I enrolled my older son in school shortly after our move, found daycare for my younger son, and started looking for work. We got back to church the first week and I created a routine on the weekends when we had more time together. Routine provides predictability and safety, which was essential for coping during a very chaotic and unpredictable time in our lives.
- I gave myself permission to step away from certain holiday traditions or routines WITHOUT GUILT, when they became overwhelming. And amazingly, family and friends seemed to understand. They did not put on us more than we were able to handle that year, and in fact, often stepped up to provide care in ways we weren’t able to do for ourselves yet.
- I prioritized what I felt was important for our family to practice or remember during that first set of holidays. In our situation, it remained very important to continue to read the Christmas story from the Bible on Christmas. And we were intentional about using certain ornaments that were closely associated with my husband that year, as part of remembering and honoring him.
- New Year’s Eve became a time of addressing my changing identity and goals. I actually did something some people might consider rather odd on New Year’s Eve. While I was in no way ready to go to any kind of party, I also did not want to slide into the new year in a slumber. I wanted something more intentional than that. Grief shakes a person’s identity to the core, and can steal from a person some of those most personally cherished characteristics. In my situation, I had lost the ability to laugh. So I was determined to laugh in the New Year, by putting in a favorite funny video about 11:30 on New Year’s Eve. It was my declaration that I would return somehow, in this New Year, and not be defined by my loss. I’m not saying you have to laugh in the New Year, but I would certainly encourage you to use that time to reflect on what you have lost, and what you hope to gain or recover in the New Year.
The holidays are inherently stressful, and under the best of circumstances, they can become overwhelming. When coupled by grief, they can become paralyzing. Self-care is not a luxury during these times, it is required for sanity! And it is foundational to how you will negotiate future holiday activities and celebrations. (You don’t have to do it all!)