One Sunday afternoon when I was fifteen, my dad had a massive heart attack and collapsed in front of me. They resuscitated him at the hospital, but he never regained consciousness. For a week I sat by his bed and talked about anything and everything that came into my mind.
I knew he wasn’t going to make it.
Since there was no evidence of any brain activity, the doctors asked for permission to turn off the machines. Dad died several hours later.
I had been living with my dad, just the two of us. It wasn’t a perfect relationship, but I loved him. When he died, I felt lost. He had been my home.
Another family stepped up and took me in. Even though they already had four kids, they welcomed me in as one of their own. It was wonderful. They helped me heal.
Then the holiday season rolled around. I loved Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I was having a blast with my new family. But one morning in November I woke up feeling terribly sad. My heart ached.
I missed my dad.
Holidays can mess with our hearts
Holidays bring up and magnify our losses. We become keenly aware of who’s missing.
I think of feel-good holiday classics like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and White Christmas. The backstories of these films include tragedy, illness, economic disaster, war, death, depression, and the difficulty of aging. Perhaps that’s why they’re classics. They give us hope. They’re about overcoming our losses. Though life is tough, love and goodness can still win out.
I’ve now had many holidays without my dad. The ache is better, but it’s still there. I’ve gotten used to that hole in my heart and have learned to appreciate it.
I miss him. I’m supposed to.
Using holidays to grieve well
Grieving well isn’t about getting over your loved one. That’s impossible. You learn to get through this time in the healthiest way possible. And that includes birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, the Christmas holidays, and all the other special days of the year. They will remind you of your loss, and that’s okay.
Like those holiday classic movies, many of your special days will be about overcoming. The goal isn’t to merely survive, but to make holidays work for you in less than ideal circumstances. With the right tools in your grief toolbox, you can create your own holiday classics, year after year.
Holidays can be tough. But they can still be good.
How? That’s a subject for another article. For now, please know that it’s okay to hurt. How could you not? And hurting while being surrounded by all these messages of holiday cheer can be discouraging and maddening.
You may not be in control of much this holiday season, but you can make a plan. You can be proactive and make decisions that work for you. More on that in the next article.
Adapted from Surviving the Holidays Without You: Navigating Grief During Special Seasons available at the Grief Toolbox. Wach the book video here.