How My Family Is Navigating Our First Holiday Season After Loss

As someone who looks for any reason to celebrate, the holidays are typically my favorite time of the year. The joy is felt the minute the air starts to cool at the sign of fall’s arrival. However this year, there is something different in joy’s place. Instead, a heavy looming sensation. An emotion I’ve never experienced during the holidays, it’s a feeling of dread.

Of course, 2020 showed us all that holidays would be celebrated differently. Especially as many navigated grief and loss. They too experienced this feeling of dread. Though for my family, my brother was still alive in 2020. It was in January of 2021 that his life ended suddenly. This painful loss has presented us with nine months of heavy grieving and trying to learn to live again. The silver lining of the timing was perhaps that we had time to prepare for what the following holiday season would be like. But now that it’s here, we’re learning it’s one more hurdle to move through in the grief journey.

A few days ago, my family and I all sat down together for breakfast. We acknowledged how challenging this first holiday season without my brother will be. We agreed to let ourselves feel sadness. We discussed how we can help one another find joy. We decided the best way for us to manage our grief would be to embrace the holiday traditions that brought my brother happiness.

The first holiday we will have to face is Halloween. Many who are in the throes of grief or have experienced grief know, Halloween can be challenging. As the grief writer Megan Devine explains, “it’s hard to be a grieving person during the Halloween season. When you’ve had first-hand experience with death—you don’t need plastic lawn ornaments to remind you that death is everywhere.” Outside of this, Halloween was my brother’s favorite holiday.

Although part of me wants to skip Halloween altogether, I also know he would have wanted to celebrate. There are many rituals of this season that my brother loved. Things like carving pumpkins, eating caramel apples, watching a scary movie, and taking a walk through his favorite tree-lined trail to see the changing leaves. My family and I will do each of these rituals. When we carve pumpkins, we will carve one for my brother as well. When we eat caramel apples we will talk about his love for this treat. When we go on a brisk fall walk, we will share in the many years we shared enjoying the changing leaves together.

After Halloween, of course, comes Thanksgiving. A time to be with family and share in gratitude. My brother had his doubts about this holiday. Whether history tells the honest story and if we really should be celebrating. He also found it overwhelming to be with all the extended family. Having to make conversation over a long drawn-out meal. Yet my brother would never turn down the chance to eat good food.

We’ll also celebrate differently this year because outside of grief, our little girl is due to be born at the beginning of November. Considering my husband and I will most likely be too tired to celebrate, we’ll simply honor my brother by eating a warm meal. Along with his favorite pies, pumpkin and apple. Cherishing each bite and chatting about the memories of Thanksgivings together in years past.

Christmas, however, is where I find my grief heaviest on my heart. It’s hard to put into words the sadness I feel as I imagine not having my brother with me during this holiday. To help decorate the tree, go sledding, make Christmas cookies, and drink eggnog. As anyone with siblings knows, the memories of celebrating this holiday together are endless. Because Christmas is my favorite holiday, my aim is to still find the magic in it, while also allowing myself to feel the inevitable grief. Alongside the sadness, this will also be our baby girl’s first Christmas and we’ll no doubt find the magic of Christmas through her eyes.

When we decorate the Christmas tree, we will be more intentional in appreciating each ornament, and the memories that go along with it. When we drink eggnog, we will discuss how strange the flavor is but how much my brother loved it. When we feel the sadness of him not being here with us, we will let the tears fall alongside the snow outside.

Acknowledging there will be many emotions is the first step in allowing for them to come. It’s in trying to pretend or hide the emotions that we cannot move through the journey that is grief. As hard as it will be to feel sadness during a time of year normally filled with happiness. Knowing emotions are part of the healing journey will be what we hold onto through the ups and downs.

For those on the journey of grief during the holidays, be gentle. Let the holidays feel heavy and sad. Yet when possible, remember what brought a smile to your loved one’s face. With that as your focus, do the things that bring you a smile as well. Remember your loved one would want you to be smiling. Surround yourself with those who knew that person (as much as possible). This will help in sharing memories of the holidays together. Sometimes what we need most in grief is to laugh, smile, and cry as we remember the memories and joy the holidays brought to our lives when that person was still here. 

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