I wish I could say I remember the last Christmas my mother was alive. I should remember. I should have committed every moment to memory because we knew she was sick and that we probably wouldn't get another holiday season. But her pancreatic cancer diagnosis was new, and I think I was stuck in fight or flight. So instead of remembering, it's all a blur.
My mom died the following October, less than a year later. And after that, we lost Christmas for a little while. We still hung the stockings and ate the cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. However, try as we may, we could not fill our broken hearts. No matter how much holiday spirit we poured in, it spilled right out the other side.
The loss of the holiday season was one of our first significant secondary losses, but we didn't realize it at the time. We headed into December thinking the best thing to do was push through as we always had, but we were unprepared for how simultaneously stressed and empty 'the same old' would feel without Mom's presence. It felt like we were reanimated Christmas zombies just going through the motions.
In hindsight, I wonder, had we known to count 'Christmas with Mom' amongst the many losses that we needed to grieve, would we have taken a different tack? Perhaps one based in, oh I don't know, reality? The notion that we could do Christmas the same as we did before was silly. That version of the holidays was gone, and we needed to grieve that fact, plain and simple.
Secondary Loss at the Holidays After a Death:
For those who are new to the term "secondary loss," we've previously explained it in the following way:
"Death does not just create a single hole in one's life. Instead, the loss can impact many areas of one's life, creating multiple losses from that "primary loss." Though it is easy to think that our grief is solely the grief of losing the person we cared for so deeply, our grief is also the pain of the other losses that were a result of the death. You will hear these losses referred to as "secondary losses," not in the sense that their impact is secondary, but rather that they are a secondary result of the primary loss."
There are plenty of reasons why a person might experience secondary loss at the holidays after a death. A few include if you:
- Worry you'll never feel positive about the holidays again
- Have to change how you celebrate the holidays
- Are considering skipping the holidays altogether
- Feel lost or disconnected from your faith or the values that you believed underpinned the holidays
- Are mourning for everything your kids have lost
- Miss how your loved one made you feel at the holidays
- Are mourning the sense of warmth, safety, wonder, joy, peace, love, etc you felt before experiencing loss
The list of reasons for experiencing secondary loss goes on. We encourage you to consider what holiday-related secondary losses you would add to your own list.
Coping With Secondary Loss at the Holidays:
When you experienced the death of someone you love, there was probably a part of your mind that went to a place of thinking about all the things that will never be the same. And these abstract thoughts may have caused you a degree of anxiety about the future--especially when thinking about dates like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. So, to some extent, you've already been wading around in some complicated holiday-related feelings.
With this in mind, we often suggest that grieving people take their sense of anticipation and use it to plan ahead for the holidays. A significant part of this planning includes thinking about the secondary losses you're likely to encounter and considering constructive ways to deal with them. By constructive, we mean thinking about ways to cope and find support when you inevitably find yourself crying over your loved one's box of decorations or their favorite holiday hymn at church.
Beyond preparing for the difficult smaller moments, you may also need to acknowledge your sense of loss around the holidays as a whole. Things can never go back to exactly how they were--and this is possibly a major loss for you. Perhaps you yearn for the past when everything seemed warm and bright. In contrast, the holidays after a death feel cold and unfamiliar; is this how they will always feel? And if the holidays can't be how they were, what are they?
If you're facing a ripple effect of loss, it's understandable if all you can do this year is survive. I want to reassure you that the holidays, like many other parts of life after loss, can be rebuilt in a way that acknowledges your loved one but still feels meaningful and positive. However, I'm not sure you're in a place where you're ready to believe me about this. Maybe you can't even consider what the future looks like, and that's okay. So, for now, we simply encourage you to acknowledge all your loss. And if you want further support for coping with loss at the holidays, click below where it says holiday season.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.
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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
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