The holidays, traditions, and long tables filled with faces we love (and maybe a few we tolerate) are an integral part of sharing our lives. We bond through laughter, sharing sacred devotions, and eating specific foods that tie into memories. We love hard, cry, and even banter. It is the ritualistic aspects that make traditions meaningful.
But what happens when grief hijacks the holidays? Whether it’s a loss of a loved one, an animal companion, a lifestyle, a marriage, or the effects of living in an aging body. With new challenges, adapting change to tradition can feel like our heart is being led through the mud.
Maybe you hosted your family for decades, but now as your family grows in new directions and as you are experiencing some effects of releasing your tradition as someone else has offered to host. You feel lost, maybe even marginalized, without a clear purpose or place in the new dynamic.
Honor that things are not going to be the same because you are not the same.
Maybe it is the first year you’re experiencing the holidays without your spouse, partner, animal companion, or other loved one. The grief feels overwhelming, and the memories now feel like salt on an open wound.
Honor where you are in your grief, not where you or anyone else thinks you should be.
Maybe this year, your grown children and their children are breaking tradition by alternating holidays with their extended families. You may feel abandoned, hurt, and, even perhaps, a little embarrassed by these feelings that are not you.
Feelings as visitors, messengers, not always truth-tellers. Allow them to surface, have their say, then choose a perspective that serves the feeling with love, not pain, and release them. If or when they arise again, repeat.
Honor that it’s a natural familial shift knowing your loved ones are not abandoning you, the tradition, or the family unit at all. That their choices are reflections of how your roots gave them wings and shaped them to want to create something similar for their expanding families, that maybe it’s a sign you did well, very well, by them.
Embrace that the holidays aren’t the same anymore because you aren’t the same, either. You’re growing through what you’re going through.
Here are 3 ways to navigate the holidays while grieving “what was”:
1). Release the reins with love.
If your role has shifted from host to guest, find gratitude that you’ve earned it. Consider you don’t ‘have’ to be the one ‘doing’ because you ‘get’ to be on the other side of the kitchen wall, witnessing the conversations you have missed, observing how the grandchildren grew so much in one year, noticing the strength and grace that grief has shown you that you possess. Learning to transition from giver to receiver requires our permission, takes a little practice, some releasing, and offers significant rewards. Allow your loved ones to honor you by accepting.
2). Create new traditions.
Ask yourself, “How do I want to feel over the holidays?” Then try to match meaningful actions, people, and ways of being to support it. Allow your memories of past holidays and of loved ones who have passed to serve you, not deplete you. Memories are gifts, the gems left behind that remind us of what or who mattered. The chances are that if you are missing a tradition or a loved one, someone else close to you is, too. What helps us is to navigate through the lens of our highest self and that we meet each moment with curiosity, not auto-deflect to any current pain.
Don’t make wide circles around grief, dance with it. It won’t go anywhere until it’s heard, seen, felt, and transmuted from its current energetic composition to an elevated composition. That’s not for us to know. It’s for us to experience. We can’t know or direct its exact course, but we are the leaders of the dance steps. We can do this by sharing and talking about happy memories and traditions, stories of significance, allowing the tears, and the laughter to flow. Be open to it all. Even water will not flow until the faucet is turned on.
We are the conduit of our own transformations and transcendences. We don’t need to be strong; we just need to be authentic.
So, how do you want to feel? On a sheet of paper, create two columns. In one column, write down the names of loved ones (family and friends), who you love, and who you want to see over the holidays. On the second column, write down how you want to feel. Loved? Seen? Grateful? Happy? At peace? Of Service to others?
Get creative imagining what new tradition or simple ritual you can make merging the two columns. Maybe it’s making one favorite dish and not preparing the whole meal. Maybe it’s spending time with a few loved ones at a time for a few hours, rejoicing and reminiscing about those who are no longer here. Perhaps it’s bringing a grandchild who is drawn to animals to volunteer at an animal shelter, teaching the value of respecting all beings and of being of service to others. Maybe it’s a hot bath at the end of a day well spent with loved ones. Once completed, you know who and what matters most to you.
If it’s meaningful, it qualifies as a new tradition. And any new tradition is the beginning of new ways to be and see, to give and to receive.
3). Accept that expectation and perfection don’t exist.
If we don’t express our feelings, desires, and needs sincerely, there is a pretty good chance they’ll never get met. Reach out, ask, offer, suggest. Don’t be afraid of rejection, be more fearful of not voicing your truth. Change is a natural part of our life cycle, and family traditions naturally change as people and circumstances change, move on, pass on, and expand their own families. Adult children of aging parents can’t know exactly how you feel, and they especially cannot help any parent who has difficulty expressing themselves. This is the time for family members to remember they’re on the same team in an ever-changing family dynamic. Start with your vision and use your voice to carry it into form. There are so many new, beautiful opportunities to seize as we move through the holidays differently, in grief, in grace, and in feeling lost.
This is an excellent time to re-choose your place in your own life, your family, and/or community and create new traditions and ways to celebrate the meaning of the season. Even if your role is different, pared down, your body is aging, loved ones including beloved animal companions are no longer beside you physically, and especially, if the size of your family has diminished or expanded.
The holidays are a personal, sacred time of the year. No two people can possibly experience loss or change exactly the same.