Christmas is upon us and I am both relieved and apprehensive. The holidays this year are especially difficult for my family because they are the culmination of our first year of grief. My niece, Shaelee, lost her life to suicide on Jan. 4 at the age of 19. She suffered from bipolar disorder for much of her life. It has been a rough year – to say we miss her terribly is such an understatement.We also have the challenge of ongoing grief and loss as my parents, for whom I have been primary caregiver for several years, battle health challenges and changes in their abilities and roles. My Dad has Alzheimer’s disease and every day brings another loss and more to grieve. This is the first holiday season when he doesn’t really know who I am.
Each of my family members will have different perspectives on what we can handle this year. Grief is an individual and unique process; there is no “right” way to grieve through the holidays. I wrote a column for AARP.org about this, Dealing with Grief Through the Holidays: 10 Things to Help Get You Through this Difficult Time, and I’d like to share my own personal perspective on how I am dealing with it:
- While I seriously considered it, I have chosen not to “skip” the holidays this year. Instead, I choose to honor Shaelee’s memory and the memory of so many wonderful holidays my parents have given us by continuing to experience life and enjoy time I have with them while I still can.
- I know I cannot re-create past holidays. I can accept that things will never be the same – it is only more painful if I try to avoid that fact. And if I think too much about future holiday seasons it becomes a downhill spiral as I wonder if I’ll ever be able to feel the freedom and joy I once felt at this time of year. So I know my task right now is just to be in the moment and get through this holiday season.
- I allow myself to remember, with both joy and sadness, past holidays with Shaelee: her profound love for her stuffed animals, the year she ecstatically got her ears pierced, watching the Mrs. Santa Claus Christmas movie with her as she snuggled up with her grammy, singing with her new karaoke machine, baking together and a fun shopping trip to the Whole Foods last year.
- I initially decided to scale back on Christmas decorations and activities. I didn’t think I could handle it with grieving and along with all the normal everyday stresses in my life as a professional and a caregiver. But, surprisingly, as I began minimal decorating, I got on a roll; it was a welcome escape. The familiarity of decorating has been a comfort, and most importantly my Mom was so very happy as the decorations went up. Making a nice Christmas for Dad and her is a big motivator. Sometimes focusing on someone else’s needs helps me get past my own sadness. I will cut out some holiday activities though…don’t look for a Christmas card from me this year.
- I have planned a few fun activities for my parents so we have something to look forward to, including seeing a production of The Christmas Carol. Shaelee would normally have gone with us, so I struggled with emotions at times; she was sorely missed. But I wore a piece of her jewelry, made a conscious effort to feel grateful for the events we did have with her in the past, and we toasted and talked about her at dinner afterward. That brings me peace and joy, which seems to overtake the sorrow at least momentarily. For me, talking about her keeps her memory alive.
- Going to stores we went to together can be a trigger for me. I see things I know she would like but that I can no longer buy for her, so I have chosen to limit my time in stores. I will also make donations in her memory this year.
- Shaelee’s mom, my sister Susie, and her step-dad, Dean, will be coming for Christmas this year. We have discussed what we each feel we can handle. We decided to go out to eat for Christmas dinner – a first for us with the exception of last year when we ate at the hospital cafeteria. I learned from Thanksgiving that it was just too difficult for me to be mourning Shaelee’s absence, taking care of both of my parents and cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner. We are choosing this new approach this year; I know that doesn’t mean we will never have Christmas dinner at home again.
I will continue to breathe in and out, put one foot in front of another and focus on the here and now. I know that we will get through this together. Grieving will continue – it’s an ongoing process – but I hope that we will have some good moments and make some good, new memories this year.