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Writer Jen Kirsch lost her mother over 15 ago so she knows first hand how hard it can be to celebrate the holiday season when you have to do it without a loved one.
The only constant we have is change—so the saying goes. But those who have lost a loved one know that loss is another constant. The fact that one of the people you loved most in the world is no longer there is something that stays with you no matter how many years go by and no matter how much you’re hoping to avoid the emotional aftermath. It’s in stone. And that loss can be especially felt during the holidays.
I know this first hand.
I lost my mom when I was 18-years-old after a courageous battle with breast cancer. It metastasized and took over her body and ultimately her life, and for a while, mine too.
She passed two weeks before I started my first year of journalism school, and I threw myself into my studies, not telling any of my new friends or my teachers about my loss. I kept on keeping on as if nothing had happened, and it wasn’t until the school year ended and Mother’s Day was approaching, that I finally had a moment to feel her loss.
I wasn’t prepared to face Mother’s Day, and reality, so I booked a trip to Europe with a high school friend and jetted off to a country that didn’t celebrate that monumental day. As the summer passed and the Jewish holidays came, I struggled. I wanted to leave the city again. To run. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of running. My father always respected my journey and my way of coping, but looking back I wish I was more present for those in my life who were still living, there to create memories and savour my time with them.
As the Jewish holidays approached year after year, I found myself digging into a bag of excuses offering an inarguable reason why I couldn’t attend the family festivities. They weren’t good excuses—often social events I just couldn’t miss or work opportunities that would surely make my career. They were empty, but they were a prime example of how the loss of my mom made me prioritize living in the moment, putting spontaneous, fun, you-only-live-once opportunities ahead of the chance to connect with my family members—and go through yet another holiday where my mom’s absence was so largely felt. By spending so many years (including the Jewish holidays this past September) moving forward, I created distance from my living family members and felt even more alone, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that cemented my distance from the living—and reality—even more.
My perspective on continuing on without my Mom didn’t change until I started to honour and celebrate her over the holidays by maintaining some of her traditions, and creating new ones. The first year after my maternal grandmother passed away (10 years after my mother), I used the holiday season as a time to bring all the women in my immediate family together to celebrate her life, as well as the life of my mom. I hosted an afternoon tea at my family home, where we sipped from china teacups I had inherited from her, and noshed on delicious sweets—miniature versions of my mom’s signature cakes and baked goods that I made to honour and celebrate her.
The thing is, it has been years since my Mom has passed and I’ve spent almost as many years without her as I spent with her living and breathing and loving and guiding me. Despite all the years that have passed, each and every occasion is still bittersweet.
During the holidays when I watch my nieces and nephews open their presents, I catch myself welling up, my throat choked. I’ll step away to go somewhere private and breathe through my feelings and take a moment to be mindful of them. Instead of caging them up and denying them—running from them as I did years before. I let those tears stream. I take some deep breaths and I think of how much love she had to give. Love that I hope flows from me as I celebrate the holidays with the kids who never got to know their late bubbie Anita.
Tips for dealing with your grief this holiday season
I reached out to Rebecca Soffer, cofounder of the website Modern Loss and coauthor of the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome to get her tips on how to get through the holidays if you’ve recently lost someone.
1. Build your support team
Each of us has people in our lives that provide different things to us: laughter, comfort, openness, and even just some good old Type-A organizing. Think about who they are and give them a heads up that you might be reaching out to them during such a triggering time.
2. Take a breather
Grief is a tricky monster that sometimes allows us to feel totally fine before catching us unawares with sneak attacks. So even if you do come up with a specific plan for how you'll spend the holiday, give yourself full permission to leave the festivities at any time—be it for a short walk around the block or if you’re ready to head home and call it a night.
3. Keep traditions alive
Holidays are chock full of traditions created by lost loved ones, which can make the season particularly painful when you can imagine exactly what your Mom would have baked for dessert or the ridiculous song your Dad insisted on everyone singing. While it can feel overwhelming to have to copy and paste every ritual, consider choosing one you love so much that it would truly serve as comfort and connection to their memory.
4. Plan an escape
It won’t solve everything, but during that first year after losing a parent, it might help to go somewhere you've never been before and ditch celebrating holidays at all.
5. Volunteer somewhere
There are plenty of other people in the world experiencing deep grief and other great adversities, and signing up to help them out alongside others can do wonders. It can open you up to meaningful connection and also get you out of your own head—if even for the day.
6. Consider your still-living parent or relatives
Honouring your personal needs while dealing with loss is important, but it’s also important to be there for those who are also grieving. “In the early days of grief, it can be difficult to give others what they need," she continues. But you can try your best to be present so that they can see that they aren't alone during a difficult time. For some the effort could look like reminiscing, or making an effort to keep a beloved tradition going. Or it could be as simple as doing some housework or errands that they don't have the energy to do. "If you don't figure out what works the first time around, just remember there's no clear roadmap for navigating grief," says Soffer. "As long as you both openly communicate, chances are, you'll figure out how to effectively support each other,”