My sister died in June. That awful day was the beginning of my “first (fill in the blank) without Julie” dates. They kept coming: My first birthday. The first summer vacation. The first change of season. Now comes the onslaught of the first holiday season.
My therapist, and friends who have suffered losses, have warned me that “the ‘firsts’ are always the worst” - so I am dreading the upcoming holiday season.
And for good reasons, says Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and author of “The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn From Love and Loss.”
Our bonds and rituals with our loved ones are deeply encoded in our brains, she says. For instance, we expect a spouse to come home after work at 5 p.m. or a child to awake up excitedly on Christmas morning.
When they don’t, when expectation hits the harsh reality of the new situation, “we experience grief, pain and suffering because they were so important, and we can’t function in the world in the same way,” she says.
As a result, O’Connor says, “your internal map of the world no longer matches up with the world itself,” which is why we need to created a revised cartography of our new lives.
“Suddenly, every plan that is in place has a hole in it where that person should be,” O’Connor says. “The first time, that hole is most apparent because you have no other way of understanding [for example] what a holiday looks like” without that person in it.
Our family was lucky - if it can be called that - because we were prepared.
Julie’s death was not sudden, as she had lived with ovarian cancer for 5 1/2 years. Last Thanksgiving, which we feared would be her last, our entire family - spouses, nieces, boyfriends and girlfriends, as well as chosen family - gathered to be together with her. We leaned into every tradition. My pecan pie. My niece’s cheese board. While Julie, our family’s top chef, prepped and whipped, sliced and diced the turkey and its fixings. In our photos from last year, she’s right there in the middle; ditto in my memories.
A month after Julie died, her wife suggested that we carry on this year with our holiday traditions to provide continuity. Sticking with tradition can be a comforting way to approach the first holidays.
Brad Milne, co-founder and chief operating officer of Better Place Forests (which provides grieving families the opportunity to spread their loved ones’ ashes at the base of a tree in a protected forest) wrote in a blog post, “It can help you feel closer to your lost loved one by reminding you of happy holidays spent together . . .. People coming together to support one another often creates a comforting sense of solidarity.”
It’s not the only way and, frankly, I’m ambivalent about it. Yes, I want to be with my family, but I worry - no, I know - that we can’t replicate the past and that it will be painful.
That’s why others decide to change their long-held traditions in the first year - and sometimes much longer - after a loss. A complete change of scene, a break from tradition, can provide a different kind of comfort.
After Ed Chaney and Mandy Hitchcock lost their 17-month-old daughter, Hudson, in May 2010, they decided to leave the country altogether for that first Christmas without her. So they headed to Paris. Thinking of the popular saying “Wherever you go, there you are,” I asked Chaney whether they hadn’t just brought their sadness with them. No, he said, “we didn’t leave the country to escape the grief, just to grieve on our own terms,” without having to worry about the reaction or emotionalism of others.
Many of those I interviewed felt silenced by relatives at holiday celebrations and discouraged from bringing up their pain. O’Connor says it’s important to remember that each person in the family grieves differently and needs different things. “There are some who still really need to avoid conversations about it and there are others who need to memorialize and express how they’re feeling, " she says.
Kate Kennedy, an educator, whose parents died in a car wreck when she was 27, told me, “I wish I had been allowed to talk about how worried I was that grief would bury me on a holiday. The not being able to say it out loud was hard.”
I worry about that, too. If everyone seems happy, will I bring down the room?
Preferring not to celebrate is normal, writes Milne, but he cautions against being alone as the alternative: “Having people around you for support is important when you’re grieving.” Over and over, I heard “Don’t be alone” and “Don’t isolate” from those I interviewed. It’s important if you can arrange it to be with people who understand what you’re going through.
Looking for advice on how to make it through the year-end dark days, I discovered the Happily Ever Adventures blog, where Lena Ameripour described how she survived her first holidays after her mother died of ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. “I didn’t know how we were supposed to be happy without her,” she wrote. She and others provided several suggestions about how to survive the “firsts,” which I intend to rely on:
• Do something in memory of your loved one. I’m going to ask my family to go on a walk after our big meal, something we usually did together when Julie was alive.
• If there were games that brought joy before, play them again - or try new ones. We love jigsaw puzzles and Rummikub, No need to change that except to introduce Qwirkle, a board game involving tiles that I think will suit our competitive spirit.
• Buy a gift in honor of your deceased loved one and donate it to a hospital or a favorite nonprofit group. I’m going to send an amaryllis, my sister’s favorite flower, to her oncologist and others who helped care for her.
• Watch a favorite movie together. Our family used to binge on the Hallmark Channel’s schmaltzy holiday movies, which, as Julie always said, deliver “a happy ending every 90 minutes.”
• Tell others what you need. No one is a mind reader, not even loved ones or family members. Do you need a break? Or a hug? A good cry? As I joke with my dog, “Use your words!”
• Find some joy. Even when grieving, there’s joy - in the foods we’ll eat, in the hugs we’ll give and get. Even in our memories. Yes, we can hold more than one emotion at a time.
I’m also planning to tell Julie stories of holiday seasons past. Ellen Steinberg, a graphic designer whose father died 14 years ago, told me, “talking about the deceased diffuses the pressure cooker of sadness that comes from people trying to hold it together and rise above the abyss the missing person has left behind. Talk about them. Share a story. Soon you’ll be laughing about a wonderful memory and quite literally bringing their spirit into the room.”
O’Connor also reminded me “to remember that grief comes in waves. There will be many different moments, and each of those moments will require your big tool kit of coping strategies, a different tool for every situation.”
She also notes that it’s normal for these waves to come and then recede, and knowing that may help us not to fear them quite so much and may even help in the midst of grief.
“I am sorry for your pain,” a friend wrote me recently. “It will most likely always be there but hopefully, it will lessen as you find your own way of facing it. Wishing you peace throughout this first year without your beloved sister.”
I wish the same to all of you facing the holidays for the first time without your loved one.
Steven Petrowis a journalist and author.