Wellness: Handling Holidays While Grieving
Celebration and joy are the very reasons for festivals. But what if your heart is heavy from bereavement?
My heart experienced a thump the minute I heard, “It’s a small 50-people party. Come, na.”
Normally, I never miss a chance to celebrate life. I am big on holiday cooking, lighting diyas, wishing people, decorating our home, and overall festivities. But after losing both my father and father-in-law within two days of each other over summer, I am still grieving. The trauma of scattering my father’s ashes, conducting my father-in-law’s cremation, and performing Mom’s death anniversary puja–all on the same day–has yet to heal completely.
When I asked my husband for his opinion on the invitation and his feelings towards the upcoming festive season, he too agreed that he was not ready to be a part of anything loud, boisterous, or over-the- top festive.
I am in my forties–which means most of my friends are at an age where our parents are in their 70s and sometimes 80s. Attending to their health issues has become a thing for our generation. Our minds are constantly sandwiched between caring for both children and parents; and in some cases, offering cross-continental caregiving to aging parents in India.
Holidays will be difficult for a lot of us–be it Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa. In the past month itself, I have endured the loss of six loved ones in my circle of friends and family. Whether you are grieving or know someone who is hurting, these tips will bring healing, humanity, and kindness into your lives.
1. Surround yourself with loved ones: This holiday season, we plan to spend some time with our extended family. These are cousins we adore, respect, and feel at home with. With them, there are no formalities or performances. If I cry out of the blue, I know I will be met with hugs and a long walk. If my
cousin starts to miss her deceased parents, I will be by her side. Losing a loved one creates a sense of loneliness; surrounding yourself with a handful of people who love you can feel reassuring.
2. “No” is a complete sentence: You need not feel guilty for saying NO to invitations. Grief doesn’t come with a timeline, and you shouldn’t force yourself if you aren’t ready to celebrate. Grief comes in waves and can feel all-consuming. Everyone grieves differently. Depending on your relationship with the person who invites you, use your discretion about being vulnerable. I am honest to a fault and will say exactly what’s on my mind. But you do what seems most authentic to you. As a host, when someone says no to your invitation, if you don’t understand why they have been grieving for so long, consider yourself fortunate that you haven’t experienced monumental loss.
3. Reach out to your friends and family: Some people will shut down and not return phone calls or messages when they are hurting. A friend of mine, who is single, lost both her parents a few years ago. Her goto coping strategy was to push people away because she didn’t want them to see her as weak. I wrote to her once that she was in my heart and mind and that whenever she was ready, I’d be there for her. We eventually shared time together and she unburdened her sorrows. Check in on your friends and family who are hurting. Don’t take their lack of response personally.
4. Change of place helps: For Diwali, our intention is to do a small family dinner with one cousin and her family in the tri-state area. For Thanksgiving, my husband and I plan to drive out to Georgia to spend it with close family. Getting away from your day-to-day routine can shift your perspective.
5. Mindful eating: Grief is no excuse to hurt yourself. If you are alone on a holiday, there might be a tendency to overeat and overdrink. But after the initial fleeting pleasure and high, it will only end up making you feel worse. Our mind-body is our responsibility. Instead of self-medicating our hurt with an excess of food or other indulgences, I am an advocate for moving your body, eating slowly, going for walks, watching your sugar intake, decluttering your mind, and minimizing processed foods. What we eat impacts how we feel.
6. Volunteer and/or donate: Consider donating to causes that were dear to your deceased ones. Volunteering to serve food, running errands for a nonprofit that helps people without homes/food/ clothing, or fundraising… any act of selfless service will feel wonderful. My heart feels fuller when I do something good for others and it’s because empathy and human connection are healers. In honor of my father, a friend offered to do the 2024 Wall Street Run & Heart Walk with me–which felt like such a thoughtful and loving gesture. Ask your grieving friends what you can do for them.
7. Set realistic expectations: Don’t set milestones to heal. Don’t dismiss holidays either. A friend said, “I want to erase Christmas; it feels too empty without my father to celebrate.” It’s okay to minimize your social activities during the holidays but try not to cut yourself off from life. Make time for remembering and grieving your deceased loved one. Make time for yourself and the life that you have as someone who has the privilege of breathing. You can start your own traditions. I was supposed to be in India for my dad’s birthday. My tickets were booked and the party was planned. But my father passed away three months prior to his birthday. For his big day, we had a few family members over and we planned the menu to include his favorite dishes. We lit a candle in his honor and talked about the silly things he would do. My dad was a man of dark humor.
There is no right or wrong way to celebrate a holiday after losing a loved one. Similarly, there is no manual that can teach you how to show up for a loved one who is mourning. It’s okay to get support and it’s only humane to offer support. Remember: grief doesn’t discriminate and touches all of us at one point or another. Always choose kindness.
Sweta Vikram, a graduate of Columbia University, is a mindfulness coach and Ayurveda practitioner.
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