Coping with the Holidays

By Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D.
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We were lost the first holiday season after my sister died. Seven months after her death in March 1993, my maternal grandmother died, leaving us without a family matriarch. That Christmas, not only were we without Denise, but all our usual plans with the relatives had dissipated without Grandma Zurawski.

I have two memories of that first Christmas. One was delivering gifts to two needy families with my sister Karen and her boss. Her office had collected funds and two families were selected for a pile of gifts each. On a day when we were sad and confused, giving back to someone else allowed us to do something when we felt like we had no control.

My other memory involves food. Because we weren’t getting together with family, there was no set meal for the day. Mom bought a variety of foods although what I remember most is the pizza. Obviously, because nothing was open on Christmas day, everything was ordered/bought the day before.

We were lost, we were sad, we didn’t know what to do. It would take several years before new traditions would form. Many of them came about because we were welcoming new family members (spouses, partners, step children, nieces, nephews, dogs) as the years went by.

Looking back in almost eighteen years of holiday seasons without my sister (and other assorted holidays and important days), the biggest lesson I learned was to plan something to acknowledge the person who died. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but in some way it must acknowledge that while the person isn’t part of the family in the same way he or she used to be, he or she still is part of the family. Often, there is a lot of tension on holidays in families (there is a lot of tension in families without a family member dying) because each person has a unique perspective and is in a different place than the others on the grief journey. Someone wants to talk about the person who died, but sometimes others are too sad, afraid they might break down if they begin to remember.

When I speak to people about suicide loss, I suggest they light a candle in acknowledgement of that person or go to the cemetery together– something small but meaningful that says, “Hey, this person isn’t here with us in the same way as before he or she died, but he or she is still part of the family.” I’ve had many people come back to me and tell me that that relieved the tension in the family.

While for some family members, there is a lot of sadness in the past holidays because there will be no new memories with the person, we are lucky to have the memories to take with us. The memories are ours to keep and no one can take them away from us. My best Christmas memories involve my sister– my birthday is in December and it’s always been a magical time for me. But because we were so close in age, it was with Denise that I found the Christmas presents in the basement closet (my Barbies had to know they were getting a new bathtub!) and it was with her that I waited for Santa Claus.

There are dozens of photos of us together opening our gifts on Christmas morning. My favorite photo is one that is framed on my guestroom wall where she is in her pajamas and her hair is mussed up. You can see the stack of gifts behind her and she has just opened a package of Barbie clothes hangers (these were for Barbie’s clothes, not for us) that has her smiling as she looks at someone away from Mom who probably took the photo. While there are no new memories and I don’t have her to remember Christmases past with, I feel fortunate to have had those almost eighteen years with her, to build my childhood of memories with her.

For each of us, what we need on the holidays will be unique to us, to our families, and to the relationship we had with the person who died. But what’s most important is that we put some thought into what we will do that day because the anticipation always is worse than the day itself. Still, it’s painful to watch people shop for loved ones, knowing that our list is one shorter this year and always will be from here forward.

As we all are part of families (for better or worse!), this also can be a difficult time because each person is grieving in a unique way. Somehow we have to reach a place where we all can agree on how to remember the past with our loved one and the acknowledgement that the person is still part of the family.