I’ve been embarrassed to write. My last post felt like a neat little closing, “Look at me– I’m healing.” But here’s what they don’t tell you about graduating to the fifth stage of grief: you still slide back to the other stages all the time.
A couple of weeks ago, I got sad. Something about the holidays, maybe. I spent Thanksgiving with a friend and her beautiful family in San Francisco. She and her brother are really close– like, bursting-into-what-appears-to-be-spontaneous-laughter-but-is-really-some-shared-inside-joke close. The way Kyle and I were, the way you only really are with a sibling who has seen throw up in the car and flip out on your mom and have a serious meltdown at the mall as a teenager and loves you anyways.
That kind of love, family love, Hallmark is playing it up this month more than ever. But there’s a very specific image of “family” that gets drummed up during the holiday season, the kind of family I don’t have anymore: a mom, a dad, kids, one house.
All these images of the nuclear family getting churned out in the media this month are taking over my brain, and I’m forgetting to be grateful for my wild, fiercely loving non-traditional family. I’m having trouble thinking of December as anything other than the month Kyle and I gave each other one hint a day about the other’s Christmas presents.
The first four stages of grief are hitting me in waves and I am struggling, y’all. So I made this guide, as much for myself as for all of you, on how to survive the holidays when you’re grieving.*
*Brief side-note: my brother died fourteen months ago. This is not my first Christmas without him, and yep, it’s still hard. Maybe harder than last Christmas because it’s a little more real. To me, grieving is a lifelong process so really, this guide is for anyone who’s lost a loved one. Back to it–
how to survive december when you’re grieving:
- Find ways to connect with your deceased person. This is important all year round, but I am especially making an effort to remember and recognize traditions and connections I had with Kyle around this time of year. I have started meditating daily as a way to intentionally set aside time to connect with his spirit. I got a new journal that says Love You to the Moon and Back (the moon was our thing) and I’m using it to write poems and letters to him. When I’m home with our family, I’m sure I’ll think of a million ways to bring him up. Keeping him alive helps me feel less empty, and less like I’m abandoning him by enjoying the holidays.
- You are going to cry. Embrace it. The first few months after he died, I would burst into sobs pretty much every time somebody asked me how I was doing. I’ve progressed from that, thankfully, but I still cry about Kyle all the time. Sometimes when I’m crying, I’m also feeling guilty to be crying and bringing down the vibe. Here’s the thing I’ve realized this year that’s really set me free: I don’t owe the world my happiness. Something really horrible happened and I’m sad about it and that’s normal. If people are uncomfortable with my sadness, lucky them for not understanding grief.
- There will be times when you will want to be both holly and jolly. Go with it. My brother died in September. My first holiday season, I didn’t buy a single gift, or hang a single light or ornament. But for some reason I got very into making these beautiful, original Advent calendars for all the children in my family. I went to Micheal’s for all my supplies, and got so crafty with these things that I could have sold them on Etsy. Why I could spend hours shaping an Advent calendar into a Christmas tree but couldn’t stand one note of a Christmas song is still a bit of a mystery to me. But I rode with it. I dove into the parts of the holiday that were bringing me joy (without guilt that I was having fun without Kyle) and left the rest.
- Make holiday cards. (I know, this one seems counter-intuative but it worked for me.) Last month when I was really, really missing Kyle, I made a list of people who had really supported me after his death. I wrote them each heartfelt letters and decorated little Santas or stockings or Hannukats (a term copyrighted by my roommate, btw…). It helped me to remember all the love and compassion and support I had in my life, all over the country. Plus everyone loves getting snail mail!
- Self care. This is another thing I’ve gotten so good at this past year. Nothing like extreme trauma to teach you coping skills. Like throwing the baby in headfirst to teach it how to swim. One form of self care I turn to especially around the holidays is saying no when I’m not feeling down for something. John Mulaney said, “In terms of like, instant relief, canceling plans is like heroin.” Kind of morbid since my brother died of a heroin overdose, but I get him. Sometimes you just need to stay in bed.
Here’s hoping for healing and realness this holiday season. We got this. Talk to you in the new year!