By DEBRA WHITE SMITH
QUESTION: I lost my husband of 51 years during the Christmas season last year. Now, with Christmastime upon us, I am seriously struggling with having a desire to celebrate. My children are pressing me to embrace the season because they think it will be “healthier” for me. They have mourned, but seem to be working through the pain. I’m still struggling. Christmas was my husband’s favorite time of the year, and every little thing brings back the memory of my loss and pain. I am caught between wanting to run away and hide and feeling guilty because I’m not able to celebrate.
ANSWER: The loss of a lifetime mate is a traumatic experience, no matter what season the loss occurs. When a couple is married from a very young age until well into their senior years, they are like two vines that have intricately intertwined. If one of the vines dies, the other vine loses its partner, but also the support system that helped to hold it up. If the loss of a mate occurs in the holiday season, then each tradition becomes a milestone of memory and a vehicle of pain. With the added stress of a holiday celebration, those who are grieving can face Christmas as a season of depression, rather than a season of joy.
Grieving the loss of a loved one takes time. In former days, women who lost a mate would wear black for as long as a year; men wore black arm bands. This was an outward symbol of an inward agony that took time to work through.
The healthiest thing for you to do is to allow yourself the time you need to finish your grieving process. If a full-blown Christmas celebration only adds to your pain, then by all means, avoid it. Allow yourself the time and space to work through the pain without feeling guilty. While I’m sure your family’s pressuring you involves their love and concern for your well-being, don’t allow them to push you into a guilt-driven celebration mode that you will have to fake. This will only up your stress.
Nevertheless, your family does need you. And some of their pressuring you to embrace Christmas might be a way to help them with their grief as well. If they can see you cheerfully carrying out family traditions, then it will help them feel like everything is “just like it used to be” before their father and grandfather died — even though deep inside they know it never will be.
The best thing to do in this situation is have an honest conversation with your children. Explain to them how you feel. But also acknowledge their grief as well. As a family unit, decide on the best way to manage the holidays together. That way, your family won’t feel like you are abandoning them for your grief, and you won’t feel like they are pressuring you into more cheer than you can bear. Purposefully choose what activities you will participate in, what traditions you will continue. Make a plan with your family and then stick to it. Some traditions you may want to keep. When others bring back painful memories, consider replacing them with an alternative activity for this year. For instance, if you have no desire to decorate your home for Christmas, but your children look forward to seeing the decorations every year, then invite them and the grandchildren over and allow them to do the decorating. If the old decorations bring back too many memories for you, invite them to buy new ones with a new color scheme. However, make certain the family knows that one day, you will return to the old decorations and traditions when you can remember without grieving.
The main issue is to keep communication open with your children but also stick to your boundaries on what you are able to endure. Also, I recommend a great book by Harold Ivan Smith (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City), “A Decembered Grief: Living with Loss While Others are Celebrating.”
The author of 54 books, Debra White Smith holds an M.A. from U.T. and is the featured relationship specialist on the Fox News Radio Show, “Plain Jane Wisdom.” She and her husband, Daniel, co-pastor Palestine Church of the Nazarene. For more information, visit www.debrawhitesmith.com. Got a problem? E-mail Debra at firstname.lastname@example.org