“How in the world are we going to get through the holidays?” 

The agonizing mother asked that question as she reminisced about past Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. For their family the holidays had always meant wonderful reunions, delicious food, joyful gift-giving, and, most of all, just being together.  But this holiday season will be very different.  Someone will be absent.  The tears flowed as she described the late-night car crash which tragically claimed the life of her only daughter.  In mere seconds the meaning of all of her future holidays was suddenly and drastically changed.  On a larger scale, the meaning of other personal relationships was changed significantly and permanently.
Most people who have experienced the loss of a loved one through death or divorce understand how holidays and special days are changed. They also come to understand the obvious and subtle changes that occur in their personal relationships. What about you? If your life journey has suffered such a heavy loss, what changes have you seen already within you—and within your relationships? More specifically, how will your loss affect special days? What are your concerns and fears about the upcoming holidays? 
During the past thirty years in my work as a professional therapist I’ve worked with hundreds of grieving individuals and families who were depressed and anxious about holidays. In every “Living with Loss:  Surviving the Holidays” workshop I’ve conducted the same type of worried anticipation has been expressed by the participants. Actually, that number of people includes me as well. You can count me in the group as one of the “walking wounded.” Following key losses in my life I’ve had personal concerns about how to get through past holidays, particularly the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. If we’re honest about our feelings, we may prefer to just skip from the middle of November to the middle of January and not even have to deal with the holidays! But reality hits and we know that the holidays are coming.
If you’re feeling doubtful and worried about the holidays, allow me to share with you two survival principles and some practical ideas and tips about the development of a personal survival plan.  Let’s explore some possible solutions to our original question:  “How in the world are we going to get through the holidays?” To begin with we need to focus upon two survival principles which deal with perspective and permission.
The first survival principle deals with perspective—choosing a positive outlook about the holidays. If we believe that the holidays are going to be so hard and so bad that we just cannot get through them, we’re inviting the probability of a very tough journey. Alternatively, a more optimistic attitude could be more helpful. Here’s the perspective I prefer:  the upcoming holidays will certainly be different and will probably be hard for me, but I will survive!  We’re not denying the difficulty of the holidays; we’re simply making the choice to survive. We try to avoid the human tendency to minimize our situation (“No problem . . . it will be easy for me.”) or to catastrophize our situation (“It will be overwhelming . . . I won’t get through it.”). Both extremes will only invite additional suffering and prolonged healing. The healthy approach is to choose to believe that the holidays will be difficult but we will survive them. This perspective will generate strength within us and will increase our ability to think creatively about solutions. A positive perspective means positive power.
The second principle focuses upon permission—believing it’s okay to do some things. It’s okay for me (and even important for me) to grieve some during the holidays, even though most people are celebrating and enjoying the special days. Let’s remember that grieving is not a disease or an enemy; grieving is the healing process. It’s okay for me to change some things, including traditions and activities, so that I’ll be able to get through the holiday season. It’s okay for me to enjoy the holidays as much as is possible for me; my enjoyment does not constitute some type of disloyalty to the person I’ve lost. It’s okay for me to be thankful for what I still have, even though my loss is very real and quite painful.
As we focus upon these two survival principles, we also need to follow our survival plan. Most folks will respond, “What survival plan? I don’t have one.” Okay, then it’s time to get started on the development of a plan that will work for you. A realistic survival plan involves three key ingredients:  priority, preparation, and power.
Personal survival centers upon priority—determining what is best for us. Because of our loss we probably have decreased energy and motivation. Therefore, it is critically important that we prioritize wisely. We face major problems when we always try to do what other people want us to do, particularly when their desires are definitely not going to help us in our survival. We can listen respectfully to their ideas, and then we need to practice assertiveness in regard to our own priorities. The key question to ask is, “Considering our special needs this holiday season, what is best for me and my immediate family?” In relation to this question we’re not trying to be selfish; rather, we’re simply using the survival skill of healthy self-caring.
Our survival also revolves around preparation—developing a plan of specific activities. It is a huge mistake to enter the holiday season without wise preparation. Planning is important in regard to personal schedules, family traditions, and preferred activities. Regarding the issue of planning we need to avoid the extremes of under-planning or over-planning. Basically, we need enough structure to support us but enough flexibility to allow some freedom. We must not wake up on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning to face an empty, unplanned day. But we must not ignore our grief and our pain; our healing needs to be a part of our preparation process.  So, let’s develop a balanced plan of action and then do our best to implement that plan.
Further, survival requires power through resources—depending upon our personal support system. The wise use of resources is important to survival. We may need to visit our medical doctor for a physical checkup and/or for medication for depression, anxiety, or sleep issues. We may benefit from talking with a professional counselor specifically about our loss and our struggle with the holidays. A family therapist would probably be willing to include our entire family in the therapy sessions. Our minister or a church leader may be an excellent resource for encouragement and direction. Personal spirituality can be a great source of strength as we use our faith to deal with the pain of loss and the stress of the holidays. Hopefully, we currently have a personal support system (family, friends, neighbors, professionals, etc.) which will help us get through this tough part of life’s journey.
How will we get through the upcoming holiday season? First, we will focus upon the two survival principles of perspective and permission. Secondly, we will follow our survival plan which involves priority, preparation, and power. These solutions will not take away all of our hurt and pain, but they will help us complete our journey through the holiday season. The solutions provide the type of direction we need so that we can travel the holiday highway safely and successfully. When we emerge from the other side of the holiday season, we will thankfully heave a sigh of relief, “We made it through. We survived the holidays.”
If this holiday season is your first experience following your personal loss, I hope that you will think hard and plan well. If you do, you’ll still struggle and you’ll still hurt, but the good news is clear:  you will survive the holidays!
At the end of this article you’ll find references to several other resources which could be helpful and encouraging to you. I invite you to check out these positive resources.
I wish you the very best during this difficult part of your life journey.

VIDEO:  To view a three-minute television video clip in which Dr. Baker was interviewed about “Living with Loss:  Surviving the Holidays,” click here.

VIDEO:  To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Holidays:  Helping People in Grief" please click on the image to the right or click here.


ARTICLE;  Dr. Baker has written an article entitled, “Your Journey through Grief,” which deals with the process of grieving. He presents four survival tips in the form of a “4-H Grief Club.” There is also an audio version of that article available to you. You can access the article and audio version by clicking on the box at the bottom of the Home Page of this website, or you can look under Resources/List of Resources/Grief Recovery to find the article and audio file. 

                                                                                            (Grief Recovery #1002)
 (To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


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