Dealing with Special Days and Holidays

By Dr Bill Webster

You probably heard the expression “Some days are diamonds, some days are stones”.

When you are grieving, there is no question that some days are more difficult than others. Many people don’t realize that grief comes and goes. Let me illustrate. If you get a sore throat, it is painful for a few days; then the discomfort diminishes till it gradually disappears.

Grief does not work in a similar way, though many people seem to think it will. When someone dies, people expect that your “pain level” will be very high in the first few days, over the funeral, or at worst for a few weeks. But often at first we feel quite numb. People confuse numbness with strength, and expect the pain of grief to ease and diminish soon after, just as in the case of a sore throat.

Not so! Sometimes a few weeks after the event, the pain is more intense. When the numbness wears off, we often feel worse rather than better.

Grief is a like a roller coaster… one day can be a good day, and the very next day a rotten one, followed by a better day, and then … well, you get the picture. We feel better for a while, and then find ourselves back in the depths of despair. Just when we think we are getting over it, we are hit by another wave of grief, and we suffer what seems a devastating setback.

Certain days are more significant than others inasmuch as they remind us more specifically of the person who died. These can be especially difficult: Sundays often represent family days; anniversaries; holidays such as Christmas and others when the person’s absence is felt. The person’s birthday for example can be a hard day, as you think back on special parties that were held, gifts you gave them … a birthday after someone’s death is usually not a happy one. But it can also be difficult on YOUR birthday, as you realize that they are not there to participate in your celebration.

You will be able to identify many occasions on which you miss your loved one, for the list is long.Think of all the days in particular throughout the year that could be hard because you miss the person: Valentine ’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, the first day of spring, or the opening of the football or sport season; the first weekend at the cottage or trailer; the summer holidays; Christmas. Then add all the special occasions like weddings, family get-togethers, weekends. These can be difficult because they remind us of better days when the person was here, as compared to THIS day where they are not.

When you don’t seem to be “getting over it”, or when it feels like you are getting worse rather than better, it can be discouraging to those who do not understand the process. But may I remind you, grief comes and goes. Some people call these experiences “Grief Attacks”. I call them TUG’s, for they are Temporary Upsurges in Grief.

There are so many triggers, usually simple everyday things: being in a familiar restaurant you frequented with your loved one; the scent of an aftershave or perfume; hearing a song on the radio that was special. So many things that remind us of the person who has died and each one has the potential to suddenly compel us to miss them again.

Coping with Difficult Days

What can we do about such difficult days? Firstly, it is important not to regard them as "set-backs" for as tough as they may be, they are actually an invitation to come to terms with our loss a little more. We ask ourselves, as much as I will miss the person, what can I do on that noteworthy day to commemorate their death and celebrate their life. How can I make that day meaningful though difficult? This gives us some measure of control.

So what can we do? May I make several suggestions? Most importantly, I think we need to remember. Grief invites us to remember, not to forget. To try to ignore the occasion, or pretend that it is just like any other day is unnatural, and actually increases the tension. It takes more energy to avoid the situation than it does to confront it.

Observe these holidays and special occasions in ways which are comfortable for you. Feel free to make some changes if they feel comfortable for you. Remember, there is no right or wrong way of handling these times. Once you have decided how to observe the time and what you can handle comfortably, let family and friends know.

Allow yourself to feel and to express your feelings. Those special days often magnify feelings of loss. Share your concerns, apprehensions, and feelings with a friend or in a support group. Recognize that the need for support is often greater during holidays. Try to get enough rest, because those occasions can be emotionally and physically draining.

Acknowledge your loved one's presence in the family. Consider lighting a memorial candle at the dinner table or in the house to quietly include your loved one. Listen to music especially liked by the deceased or look at photographs or videos if it is not too difficult to do so.

DON'T BE AFRAID TO HAVE FUN. It is natural to feel sadness, of course, but it doesn’t have to be all sorrowful. Laughter and joy are not disrespectful.  Give yourself and your family members permission to celebrate and take pleasure in one another. Can you get together with family and friends and take some time to share special memories or tell stories about the person? What made them special and what you miss about them? Humorous incidents recalled can have a special healing quality to them.

Your loved one died, it is true, but they also LIVED. Make their birthday a celebration of their life. What could you do to honour their life on that day? Make that wedding or other anniversary a time to be thankful for what you had, as well as an opportunity to grieve what you have lost. Take time on that day to remember and be thankful for the person, even though their absence will be keenly felt.

Try to remember the good memories that you shared with the person. You know, a birthday is a celebration of LIFE. So what could you do that would celebrate the person’s life, even as you remember their death. What would you have done if they had still been here … could you do something similar, as if they were saying, make the most of the day.

Be proactive, not reactive. In other words, do something to take charge of the day. See it as another opportunity to grieve, to miss the person, to peel back another layer of sorrow. To pretend that nothing has happened is so unnatural and actually increases the tension.  Do something to remember and to grieve.

Try to balance sorrow for their death with celebration for their life, and it will make those difficult days more meaningful.

Can you be thankful for SOMETHING?  Of course you are sad because someone you care about is absent, and that is natural and it is right.  But can you be thankful for the years you did have and the memories you still share?  I believe we can be thankful for what we HAD as well as grieving what we have lost. Are there people who WILL be there this year for whom you can be thankful? 

Don’t allow looking back at the past to spoil what you have in the present.  Yes, you miss the person who will not be there, but are there children, relatives and friends you can enjoy today?  It may not cancel out your sadness but it certainly makes it easier.

You only have one of two choices when it comes to grief at difficult times. Do you let the day control you, or do you control the day? Either we allow the grief to dominate us, or we try to control it. By doing something … anything … to acknowledge our sadness that they are no longer here, while at the same time celebrating the fact that they WERE here, will make a difference..

Remember, the choice is that you can shed tears that they have gone, or you can smile because they have lived. Or maybe you can do both at the same time. Be prepared for difficult days, anticipate them and prepare for them, and then do what you can to make it a fitting day to remember.