Navigating The Holidays After Loss

When death has a seat at the table

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about holiday traditions in the past few months. This year, I’ve spent less time thinking about what balance of traditions will lead to maximal joy and minimal stress. (Though thank God, after a few years of really focusing on that equation, I’ve finally got some answers down pat.)

No. This year, I’ve been thinking about holiday traditions after tragedy. How do you celebrate the holidays after the unexpected loss of a loved one? How can our family move through the season, without the whole thing being focused on the empty hole that is my dad’s place at the table? The first holiday season after a death is always a difficult time, and with my dad dying unexpectedly in early September, we haven’t had much time to adjust to the enormity of the loss and what things will look like from now on.

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So here we are, two and a half months after his death, diving into the holidays—trying to create something new, while honoring what we’ve lost.

Luckily (if that is the word) in this season of loss, I find myself surrounded by people (really, a good chunk of the APW staff) who have suffered major losses and spent time creating rituals that make space for loss.

Every year on Christmas Eve I do a candle lighting. My dad started this “new” tradition after my brother passed away. Since then, my dad has also passed, so now I light two candles. One for my dad and one for my brother. It gives me a moment of peace before I have to dive into the chaos of jumping from house to house for the holidays.

It has been important for me not to have high expectations in regards to old traditions my family had. Now that my loved ones aren’t here, some of those traditions just aren’t the same. My dad would barbecue a prime rib on Christmas night every year, and I haven’t brought myself to try and do the same thing again. The prime rib just won’t taste the same.

Chelsea Hanepen, Director of Operations

I can’t remember the holidays before my sister died (I was twelve). What I do remember is that for a long time the holidays were really hard. My parents were experiencing tremendous grief, and any kind of momentous occasion always exacerbated the issue. It’s been really important for us to find ways to include my sister in our celebrations, though. Every year on Christmas Eve, we get the whole family together for breakfast at McDonald’s (a holdover from when there were half a dozen kids under the age of five and the PlayPlace was the only indestructible restaurant in town). Then we go to the cemetery to decorate two small trees that flank my sister’s grave site. We circle up and say what we’re grateful for that year, and the event often serves as an important initiation for new family members—if you can’t hang at the cemetery on Christmas Eve, you probably won’t hack it with our crew.

One of the most important things I learned having suffered loss at such a young age is that it’s a lot to ask of yourself to expect the holidays to be good while you’re grieving. They can have good parts, you can experience joy, but it’s basically always going to be a mixed bag. And trying to avoid that reality can lead to heartache. But creating new traditions out of loss, and finding a way to include the dead, can be a really powerful way of coping with your grief.

All that said, you also have no control over the grieving process of those around you. You’re very rarely experiencing loss in a vacuum. So while you might be a run-and-hide kind of griever, your family might be face-it-straight-on people, while others might be wallow-in-sadness people and still others might be let’s-pretend-it-never-happened people. And those conflicting processes can make things tense. Which is sometimes harder to deal with than the grief itself. Each year, though, I remind myself that grief isn’t a problem to fix, and that goes triple for grief that doesn’t belong to me.

Also, McDonald’s does a bang-up breakfast, in case any of you need a place to escape to this year.

Maddie Eisenhart, Chief Revenue Officer

Growing up, the holidays were a Big Deal with my mom and her parents. Nonstop holiday music, movies, endless Nutcracker rehearsals and performances, decorations, dinners, trips to the city to see the lights and 5th Ave and the Rockefeller tree, Christmas Eve candlelight Mass, and Christmas morning with oh-so-many presents.

After my grandparents died, my mom needed to break from all the traditions and get out of the house for the holidays. I did my best to be accommodating (because what teenager complains about fancy hotel Christmases?), but I usually ended up locking myself in the bathroom and sobbing because it just wasn’t the same.

Then my mom died when I was twenty-one, and that year, fresh off the plane from a semester abroad, I spent Christmas morning at home again where my BFF and I unpacked our souvenirs like they were presents and then hopped in the car to drive cross country. It was weird but tons of fun. Since my grandparents’ and mom’s passing, I’ve done Christmas six ways to Sunday: in hotels, on planes, at the movies (when did that secret tradition become so popular?!), with friends, with friends’ families, at home by myself, and at home with my husband.

The first few holiday seasons without my mom were spent in Southern California, where it never really felt like Christmas. I would crash my BFF’s granny’s celebrations, where I always felt welcome but out of place—like Harry Potter at the Burrow. Ultimately, I moved back home to New York and just started doing whatever I wanted. Some years I don’t bother decorating. I order take out and only maybe watch Love Actually after I start feeling guilty about being a Grinch. Other years I get nostalgic and go all out with decorations, or revisit traditions that have been lost. For example, this year I might visit a cookie walk that is wondrously still happening twenty years after I last tagged along as my grandfather flirted with all the church ladies for extra sweets.

As often as I get sad that my holidays will never look like everyone else’s, I am more often grateful that they are quiet, drama-free, and spent doing whatever the hell I feel like. Because the one thing they’ve taught me is that tough times can be fun if you make them fun, and good times can still suck if you wallow in the suck. And some years you need to wallow to heal, and others you need to allow yourself or push yourself into having fun.

Keriann Kohler, Director of Partnerships

Are any of you navigating the holidays after a recent (or not so recent) loss this year? How are you coping? And for those of you who have been around this block a few times, what advice do you have for those of us facing it for the first time?

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