Thanksgiving has become my family’s most significant holiday over the years since my sisters always spend the Christmas holiday with their in-laws. Therefore, it seemed somewhat appropriate that my father passed away at Thanksgiving time 3 years ago. We thought he might die right before the holiday, but he held on and was even going to try to makeit to the dining room table on that Thursday. He only got as far as getting into his clothes, though, before it just became too much for him. He got back into bed and never got out again. He passed away just 3 days later.
I spent the rest of that holiday season with my head in the proverbial sand. Since I don’t have children who I felt I needed to keep the holidays alive for, I was able to just ignore them that year. I sent out no cards, attended no parties, bought no presents and told everyone not to bother with me. I needed to be alone. Interestingly enough, though, I did listen to Christmas carols…I have always loved holiday music and these songs actually made me feel better that year so I listened to them.
It was really the following holiday season, then, coinciding with the first anniversary of my dad’s death, which affected me more than the previous year. As Thanksgiving approached, I remember marking every day; the day my dad was diagnosed with his brain tumor, the day he went into the hospital, the day he came home to die. The first year after a death is definitely really tough and the first anniversary, marking the end of year one without your loved one, is usually one of the more difficult milestones. And everyone handles it differently. Right after my dad died, I read so many books on the topic of grief and loss (this was my first major experience with it) and that was the one thing that kept being said over and over again…there is no “normal,” everyone handles loss differently. Even when different people are mourning the loss of the same person, each handles it in their own way.
But certainly for most people the holidays are particularly hard. How does one get through them? I started seeing a grief counselor about 9 months after my dad died since I was having such a hard time, and he had some suggestions for me as the holidays approached:
Don’t be hard on yourself – it’s going to be a difficult and emotional time so accept that and don’t beat yourself up if you’re just not up for everything. You might feel angry and frustrated in addition to sad and depressed. It’s OK.
Recognize and accept your limitations – this year you might just not be up for doing all that you’ve done in the past. It’s ok to let some things go or let someone else do the work.
Let your loved one’s memory become a part of your new holiday tradition – things just won’t and can’t be the same, but it will help the grieving process to allow your loved one to be included in the day. For instance, you can have each person share a remembrance of them around the dinner table, go for a walk to their favorite spot or light a candle in their memory.
Take care of yourself – this is a time of great stress, so be sure to take care of yourself by taking a walk, listening to music, meditating, getting extra sleep, eating well, etc.
Write about your feelings – writing is very helpful for many people in dealing with very strong emotions. You might find this could help you as well.
Talk to others – if you feel that you’re all talked out with other family members and friends, seeing a counselor who specializes in the grief process or even joining a grief support group can be extremely helpful.
Take it one day at a time – as with the rest of the grief process, taking it one day at a time can be helpful. The holidays will pass and you will get through them.
I found that just knowing that it is possible to get through this and that I would come out the other side was helpful. I felt such a sense of relief when the holidays were finally over. I still miss my dad terribly and at times still can’t believe he’s really gone, but I do have to say that it has gotten a bit easier each year; still extremely sad but easier just the same. I’m actually looking forward to this Thanksgiving, as I’ll be happy to see my sisters, their husbands, and my niece and nephew who all live out of town. But my dad will still be a huge presence when we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinner…as he’s always been and will continue to be every year from now on.
Grief During the Holidays: How to Make it Through By Meta H., BlogHer.com
The holidays are coming and this is the first set of them without a certain beloved someone in your life. You have mourned the passing of a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend or close relative. Someone who used to be a big part of the holiday season died this year. And now the holidays are looming like the crest of a huge ocean wave, threatening to take you and your holiday memories under with it. What do you do? How do you walk that perilous shoreline of grief while everyone around you seems to have an intact family, with everyone alive and happy? And it gets compounded every time you turn on the TV or open a magazine and see all those other complete family units in technicolor joy, underlining over and over exactly what you are missing.
Take a deep breath. You are not alone. And there is a way to get through this. It will not be simple, easy or carefree. But you can get through it. And next year will not be as hard as this year. This year, the first year, is the hardest. This year you may be more acutely aware of the person-shaped hole in your holiday. The edges will start to heal, and then you will find ways to move that healing along a bit more every time an occasion comes up.
When you lose someone whom you love, the pain doesn't ever vanish. It can stop being crippling. And it will, if you let it.
Let me share a bit from my own life. My Mom and I were very close. It was a hard-won closeness, so we appreciated it a great deal. Christmas was HER time of year. It was magical for her, and she spent most of the rest of the year planning for it, and deciding how best to keep the ethnic traditions (Polish) of our family. To see her at Christmas was to see pure joy in action. So, the first Christmas without her was awful. It hurt like hell. But I started to learn how to deal with loss and holidays. Here are some ideas from my own experience and the experience of friends.
Here are some hints (in no particular order) about getting through the holidays when grief may be all you see.
1. Do not keep silent.
Find someone or some group with whom you can let down your guard and express your grief. Find those people who will let you cry your eyes out, or who will let you get so angry that you are without that person you loved. Express what is inside. Don't feel that you have to be stoic 24/7.
2. Ask for help.
When my Mom died, I sat down with my father and said "How on earth are we going to get through this Christmas?" And we talked. We made some decisions. We kept some things the same, and changed others. We avoided some things that would hurt. We started some new traditions. Ask your family, your spouse, your children, your pastor for ideas. Involve the family. Help your children tell you what is in their hearts, if they have lost someone.
3. Do what brings genuine comfort, even if it seems odd.
....... a. My mother 's love for Christmas had my father and I bring a decorated tiny Christmas tree to her grave. We set it up with stones so it would not blow down. Mom loved Christmas so much that she would have been delighted that we did that. ....... b. Our tradition is to set an extra chair on Christmas Eve for "the uninvited guest". (Legend has it that Christ walks the streets in the guise of a stranger that night, so if he comes to your door, he should see a place already set.) We used to always set that up next to Mom, joking that she would be the most enthusiastic companion. The year she passed away, we set up two empty chairs -- one for the guest, one for her. Other family members were
glad, and said they had dreaded the thought of her special chair not being there.
Grieving the Death of a Parent By Carol Staudacher, beliefnet.com
. . . no one knows you in the exact same way as your mother or father--indeed, will ever know you as your parent did.
A friend of mine, a hefty, 6-foot-4, middle-aged rancher in Colorado walked out one early morning to inform his foreman and ranch hands, "I'll be gone today and tomorrow." Then, with tears in his eyes, he told the men, "I'm going home to bury my mama." The sentiments of this rugged character are universal. Regardless of your age, size, occupation or gender, when your mother dies, you are still that mother's child. She is still your mama and the place where she raised you may still be considered your home.
Immediately, after either parent dies, you are plunged into the sharp, painful nostalgia that accompanies the recollections of childhood--everything your mother or father represented in terms of security, familiarity, and protection seems to be gone. You're now forced to cope with the loss of parental love and attention that was given, uniquely, to you, and that you depended on, possibly even took for granted. To one degree or another, you grapple with the realization that no one knows you in the exact same way as your mother or father--indeed, will ever know you as your parent did.
You may have depended on your parent for advice or information, or for moral support, and now have to get by without that dependable resource. Such an adjustment will be tormenting, especially if you had a pattern of interactions--conversations at certain times of the day or week, or nearly daily visits.
If you were in a caretaking role, you may have set up your schedule to accommodate your parent's needs. Not tending to all those chores and responsibilities may leave an emptiness at the center of your life that aches to be filled. And if you were the child most involved with helping your parent, it's possible that other family members will now see you as caretaker and decision-maker for them, too--a situation sometimes complicated by the fact that siblings less involved may consider their grief to be more significant than yours.
But every survivor is vulnerable to a whole range of powerful feelings such as devastation, fear, abandonment, remorse, frustration, yearning, isolation, or confusion. And if you've been a caregiver who is now physically or emotionally exhausted, you will doubtless experience some relief as well, even though it may be sadly intertwined with longing.
Interview with Megan O'Rourke, a grieving daughter who turned her journal into a memoir and tribute to her mom.
Meghan O'Rourke's honest and beautifully written memoir began as a journal she kept after her mother's death. In the process, she not came to terms not only with her own grief but was also compelled to learn more about the
grieving process. Here's more from Meghan:
Jennifer Haupt: Had you been journaling before your mother's death? And why did you start journaling about the mourning process?
Megan O'Rourke: I found that I was writing down little scraps of things even while my mother was still alive. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in May 2006, about two and a half years before she died-on Christmas Day, 2008.
When my mother was sick, I found myself needing to put down in my journals all sorts of things-to try to understand them, and, I think, to try to remember them. Those who have gone through a similar experience may know what I mean when I say I was desperate to hold on, to slow things down, to feel some bit of control. Those months were very chaotic. I often felt helpless, powerless to alter the trajectory we were on. And so when we went to a doctor's appointment, and the doctor was unkind, I could write it all down and it seemed-however falsely, or illusory-to give me some understanding or control.
It was also, obviously, a way of remembering her, of capturing what was passing so fast: Her funny gestures, her hopefulness, her courage in dealing with the illness, the way she would say "I love you to death" whenever she said "Goodnight." (The old phrase suddenly broke my heart.) I wanted to slow down time, and writing helped me feel that I was doing so. I was slowing down my thoughts, and making sure I'd remember my mom.
JH: When you lost your mother, did you feel as if you were losing a piece of yourself? If so, how did you recover that piece?
MO: Yeah, I did feel I was losing a piece of myself. Actually, I felt really unsure of my entire place of the world. The person who loved me most in the world was gone. I had to learn how to survive without her. I could almost feel the hole in the world where she had been. It seemed like the world was very precarious and hostile without her in it. I felt insecure and shy, almost like a teenager all over again.
I don't think I feel I've "recovered" that piece. Instead, I keep thinking about a tree growing around an obstacle. After she died, I was still living and growing, but I was forever changed by her death; my life had a new, different path.
As for "recovering," it's true that time helps. (Clichés sometimes have wisdom behind them.) Looking back, I'd say that the best thing I did for myself was trying to take care of myself on a simple level - by getting enough rest, not pushing myself too hard, trying to exercise and eat well. I didn't do any of that consistently, but when I did it helped. Learning to let my friends express their love and support helped also; I realized that they did feel sorrow for me but couldn't express it, sometimes, or were scared to.
JH: What was most surprising to you about the process of grieving over your mother's death?
MO: I wasn't prepared for the fact that grief is so unpredictable. It wasn't just sadness, and it wasn't linear. Somehow I'd thought that the first days would be the worst and then it would get steadily better - like getting over the flu. That's not how it was. I'd have a good week, and then one day, a wave of grief would crash over me, threatening me, subsuming me. It was very hard to explain this to friends who hadn't been through a loss, or to colleagues.
Every morning when I wake up, one of the first things I see is a picture of my mother and me. Taken nearly 19 years ago on my wedding day, it is a picture of us at our best—at peace with each other. I usually don’t give the picture much thought, but now I stare at it daily.
At 5 a.m. on March 5, my mother, the only parent active in my life, died.
I knew the moment my phone rang that morning that my mother had made her transition into another world. I knew when I left her hospice room in Tampa four days earlier to return to Houston to care for my own family that I would never see her alive again.
At 44, I know this loss is part of what defines the sandwich generation. But that doesn’t make it any easier. At midlife, the milestones are mounting.
I am grieving over many things at once: losing my mother; leaving a 20-year journalism career to go into the ministry full time; seeing the church where I serve closed by Hurricane Ike. At the same time, I am raising my own two young children amid the pull of popular culture and racial prejudices. All these things challenge and shape my world.
Any one would be daunting on its own, and suddenly I’m facing these challenges at once. I can’t afford to break down.
The Peculiar Grief of the Adult Orphan TheAge.com, Australia
"After a parent dies we continue to carry their voice in our heads at some level, as an encourager or as an admonisher. Death ends a life, it doesn’t end a relationship"
Everyone knows their parents are going to die one day, but many people are bewildered by their degree of loss. John Mangan reports.
They’re the forgotten grievers, the lucky ones whose parents had a good innings, the people who after a few months or even weeks are expected to dust themselves down, put their pain behind them and get back to a normal, happy life.
Midlife orphans, orphaned adults — there’s no established term for them, yet losing your parents is one of adult life’s most significant rites of passage. And while society recognises the loss that children feel when their parents die, adults are supposed to be fundamentally different, quickly dealing with the grief of losing the people that raised them from the cradle.
If only it were that simple. Psychologists warn that the impact of losing your parents goes way beyond organising the funeral and sorting out the will. It might be the natural order of things that parents die before their children, but the sheer inevitability is no cushion to the pain, soul-searching and sheer feeling of rudderlessness that so often follows.
Sue Cooper, who lives in Mt Martha, lost both her parents within 10 months of each other nine years ago. “I remember sitting with my sister crying and saying to each other ‘We’re orphans now’. There was a horrible emptiness, like all our back-up was gone. I felt very alone.”
Jack, a journalist with a wire service in Melbourne, lost his mother at the age of eight. He was in his early 20s when his father died. “Dad’s death hit me very hard,” he says. “About a month after he died my brother said to me, ‘You know, we’re orphans now.’ I hadn’t thought about it in those terms till then. It made me feel really alone, like I had a huge obstacle in front of me.”
Rob, a bank officer who lives in St Kilda, was 27 when his mother died, 29 when his father succumbed to bowel cancer. “I had this great sense of loneliness,” he says. “I ended up having quite severe depression. There was a lot of reckless partying, a lot of drinking, two phases of depression of about six months. At one stage I was quite suicidal.”
Bettina Arndt, Age columnist and member of the National Advisory Committee on Ageing, says she got an “enormous shock” when her parents died one and two years ago respectively, a shock that still affects her deeply.
American author Jane Brooks was almost 50 when her mother’s death stopped her in her tracks. “For a 47-year-old mother of two to admit to feeling like an orphan was somewhat embarrassing, making me seem needy and childish,” Brooks writes. “Especially since everyone assumed within weeks after the funeral that I was fine. I continued to work, to parent, and to go about my life. Internally, however, something was happening to me. The avalanche of emotions churning inside was throwing me off balance.”
Brooks, who has since written a book called Midlife Orphan: Facing Life’s Changes Now that Your Parents Are Gone, thought she was an unusual case until by chance she heard a woman voice similar emotions. “When I heard (her) words, I realised that perhaps my reaction wasn’t as extreme or unique as I imagined,” she writes.
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.
My grief lies all within, And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows of the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul.
On My Own
By Iris Krasnow
When my mother died, I grieved for the woman who had become my best friend. In the process, I discovered myself.
I am 52, but it wasn't until my mother died last December that I finally felt like a real adult.
She watched my hair turn gray, my arthritis set in, and my four baby boys become teens with stubble. Yet to Helene Krasnow, no matter my age, I was always her little girl. At times now, without her, I feel like one. I'm old enough to be a grandma myself, but this slap of loss leaves me heaving, at odd moments, with kindergarten sobs. No one loves a daughter like her mother—even at times when it doesn’t feel like love, when that love confuses, annoys, suffocates. She is a mirror and an anchor. She is the person I counted on to push my hair out of my eyes, to buffer me from bullies, to lead the way.
After more than half a century together, separating is staggering. Today I grieve for a woman who not only grilled my cheese sandwiches until I was 18 but also grew into my drinking buddy (vodka martinis, slightly dirty, two olives), staunch advocate, staunch adversary, the most loyal girlfriend I will ever have. My mother preserved my whole history as if it were a precious quilt, patching together stages with pictures and notes, keeping the sprawling bolt of fabric intact. And when that primal and seemingly ancient connection was cut, it was like being yanked from the womb again—only it was way tougher than the first time. She grew on me and in me, and the distinction of selves became blurred. We shared a heart.
Maria Shriver Speaks About Eunice Kennedy Shriver's Death:Maria Shriver says mother's death 'has brought me to my knees.' At a session on grief at the Women's Conference in Long Beach in October, California's First Lady says she's 'not fine' after losing her mother and role model. Los Angeles Times