Each November and December, I find myself in the center of two conversations: setting boundaries and dealing with death. The themes haven’t changed since I was 25 years old. Now, I  help people navigate the timelines of year-end close on financials instead of turning down holiday parties…but the theme of overwhelm and boundary-setting remains the same. People struggle to manage an influx of new expectations when they are already fatigued. They think they should be responsive and accommodating with a perpetual smile, so they seek my permission to say “No.” Hence, I spend a lot of time reassuring people that they are not bad bosses, employees, friends, partners, siblings, or parents if they disappoint people as they try to manage the juggling act while keeping their sanity intact.

Similarly, the theme of dealing with death has not changed even as I’ve shifted from counseling to executive coaching and advisement. Unfortunately, business strategy doesn’t protect us from death. Hence, I’ve found myself writing each year to give support to the people who have lost bosses, employees, friends, partners, siblings, parents, and children.

Celebrating Holidays After Loss - Challenging Cultural Norms of Grief

This year is a little different. I want to give permission to parents who have lost children to celebrate the holidays if they wish to do so, and for those around them to support their happiness. A couple of years ago, I wrote a poem for parents called “Please don’t ask me to celebrate.” It was in support of parents who found it excruciating to feel pressured to put on a happy face for holiday festivities. The contradiction of that writing and this one is not lost on me. Here is the backstory.

I discovered a problem this year, and I promised I would help to solve it. Someone who had lost a child told me they wanted to address the grief process differently than the messages the culture offers (i.e. your life is over, and you will be sad forever.) They wanted to heal and live in a way that celebrates life. Yet they couldn’t find support for this perspective. Everyone insinuated that they were either in denial or assumed that they would be depressed, divorced, and in grief for the rest of their life. We had many conversations in which we strategized approaches that fit their desire to actively pursue healing on their own terms.

Different Approaches to Grief at the Holidays - You have the right to choose.

When I wrote the poem called “Please Don’t Ask Me to Celebrate,” I missed something.

I missed the fact that some parents may want to celebrate the holidays as much as others want them to be over as quickly as possible. I missed the fact that healing, choice, and personality differences result in different emotional needs, even through dealing with the death of a child. I’m choking on this as I say it, but what I’ve learned is that even other parents who have lost children don’t have the same emotional experience as each other, and sometimes the assumption that everyone feels the same way is especially harmful and isolating.  So…once again, I want to give permission.

Rights for the grieving parent during the holidays:

  1. You have the right to get caught up with decorating and not be sad.
  2. You have the right to feel joy; it does not mean that you are in denial.
  3. You have the right to tell your friends and family what they can or cannot say and what is or is not helpful.
  4. You have the right to cry your eyes out one minute, and let the house ring with your laughter the next.
  5. You have the right to decline all parties or dance until you shut the dancefloor down.
  6. Most of all, you have the right to navigate this the way you want. I promise there isn’t a correct way. I promise that no one has the answer about the best way to approach the holidays.

How to Support Those Who are Grieving at the Holidays and Beyond

I understand the feeling of helplessness when people we care about are hurting from tragedy. We want to solve the problem, but deep inside, we know we can’t. It’s hard to know what to do or not do. We intuitively understand that each person has different needs, but that knowledge adds confusion and complexity. Here are some starting points to support people who are grieving over the holidays and throughout the year.

General Guidelines to Support Those Who are Grieving

  1. In the words of a client, “read the room.” Try your best to sense the mood of the parent instead of making assumptions about how he or she is feeling.
  2. If you aren’t sure how to handle an upcoming holiday celebration, provide a few options ahead of time and ask the parent what would feel most supportive.
  3. More than anything, let the parent have the emotions. It doesn’t matter if the death is 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years. Sometimes holidays are markers and the feelings don’t necessarily correlate with time or the experience of previous years.

Specific Tactics to Support Those Who are Grieving

  1. Don’t text something like “I know this must be a hard time of year for you.” Maybe it is; perhaps it isn’t. But that text might catch someone who is in the middle of a joyous moment, and it pulls them right back to pain. Instead, say hello and that you’re thinking of them…a neutral text or call that opens the door to communication but with no assumptions, expectations, or pressure.
  2. Don’t put your emotions on the person. I understand (actually, I do), that you may feel very upset about the person’s loss. You need to wrap that emotion up and deal with it within your own support system. It’s not helpful if someone coping with loss must support your emotions. There are times I say what others won’t say out loud, and this is one of them. Behind the scenes, the conversation goes like this, “Tricia, I know they care. But I’m the one who lost a kid. I don’t want to be rude or uncaring, so it’s hard to know how to respond. Sometimes I barely have enough to cope with my own emotions, let alone someone else’s.”
  3. If you are in regular contact, it is fairly easy to say something like, ‘you know that I know this holiday might be a mixed bag of emotions. I’m here to roll with whatever you need.” But if you haven’t had regular contact, it can be a bit jarring if your first conversation is about the loss that has occurred.
  4. If all of the above scares you into worrying that you will get it wrong, I’m going to use the words of several parents here: “Tricia, what I’ve come to understand is that people are just doing their best. They care. And they don’t know what to say.”

So to friends and family, I give you permission to be human, to get it wrong, and to feel awkward as you try to figure out what to say or do. I ask that you risk caring because caring helps with healing, even if it’s messy in the middle.

Reprint: Please Don’t Ask Me to Celebrate

Please don’t ask me to celebrate

Don’t you understand? My heart is gone.

And so when you ask me to decorate the tree,

I miss her laughing under it.

And when you ask me about my shopping list,

I think of all of the presents I won’t buy.

When you ask if I’ll make the Christmas cookies,

I only think of his favorite ones.

Please don’t ask me to celebrate

His face won’t be on our holiday card

I won’t hear her voice, squealing with excitement

Or feel him hugging me, hard.

My son, my daughter, my heart is gone.

And the swirl goes on.

The lights, the glitter, the flurry of motion

That used to make me smile, and plan, and enter the season

It reminds me

That my child won’t be here this Christmas,

Or next Christmas,

Or  the next one.

Please, please don’t ask me to celebrate.

Reprint: Please Don’t Ask Me to Celebrate

The tree sparkles, and the sound of wrapping paper echos,

My tummy hurts from too many cookies, and everyone is shouting over the music.

And I miss you.

I wish I needed to buy you a present this year

And for a moment, the slideshow erupts in my head, of all of the holidays past

When you’d show up late, steal desert before we started,

And pick on your sister, just to get a reaction.

I can feel the warmth of the family around me,

And I’m so glad that I can feel their love.

I couldn’t imagine surviving here without you,

But I’m still standing, I’m finding joy, I’m happy.

I remember your smile and how proud of me you’d be right now.

I glance at the mantle and note your stocking…it’s empty.

Then I come back to the fact that a kitchen catastrophe is erupting

And the dog just lost her mind,

And the kids that are fighting over their imaginary friend.

Oops, the cat is puking the Christmas ornaments.

I wish you were here. I know you are here; I just miss you.

I’m going to go have some fun now. Someone decided to smoke smores in the kitchen.

We have a hot competition of Carrom that you know I’m going to win.

I miss you, but I’m going to go have some fun now. I’ll tell you all about it tonight.