Lynn Lehner was excited to receive her small cardboard Snoopy Christmas display in the mail this year. She will set it on her fireplace mantel where she will also hang one Christmas stocking.
This is the first year Lehner will decorate for the holiday season since her husband passed away three years ago.
“One thing I try to tell people is, ‘you have to let it happen,’” said Lehner, who volunteers at the Aultman Compassionate Care Center in Canton, Ohio.
“It is going to be painful at times but you have to feel what you feel,” she added.
Grieving is different for everyone. “There is no right way to grieve,” said Amy Goyer, AARP family and caregiving expert.
Since 2012, Goyer has lost three family members, and she said, “I have grieved differently for each one.”
Grieving the loss of a loved one is difficult any time of year, but the holiday season can really magnify any feelings of loss and sadness.
Grief is one of the hardest things to get through. It’s taxing and you are going to be exhausted. -Lynn Lehner
Be selective of what activities you participate in, explained Goyer. Deciding to attend a family gathering could be good for the healing process, but you may also find your mind wandering.
One minute you are socializing and enjoying time spent with family and friends, and the next your mind starts to snowball, and you think to yourself, “I wish this person was here,” said Goyer.
Set reasonable expectations for yourself and don’t be afraid to tell others when you have had enough, explained Lehner.
“You have to treat yourself right,” she said. “Take care of yourself.”
Be up front
One thing Lehner realized when her husband first passed away, was the people around her didn’t know how to react. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you feel like you can talk about or what you feel like you can do.
“You just have to tell them, ‘I would like to go out to dinner with you’ or ‘will you go to church with me?,’” she said. “You have to be honest with others.”
Before commencing on holiday activities, talk with your family and friends about what you feel you can handle. Sometimes once you get started into an activity, you become overwhelming sad and need to bow out.
“You can change your mind,” said Goyer.
“If you are not sure how you are going to react, take someone with you who understands what you are going through. When you feel like it is becoming too much, you can signal your friend and they can help you exit gracefully,” said Goyer.
It’s OK to be happy
“We sometimes feel guilty when we are feeling good,” said Goyer. “How can I be feeling happy when I have this profound loss?”
It doesn’t mean you don’t care, in fact, some feel it is a way of honoring those who have passed. Be prepared, though, moments of sadness can creep in quickly and unexpectedly.
The holiday season doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Maybe decking your home out for the holidays holds too many painful memories. Goyer’s niece enjoyed all the decorations at Christmas time. After she passed away, Goyer felt “going all out” and decorating her home would just trigger painful memories, but she wanted to do something.
“I decided to put up a few decorations. I put out a Christmas tablecloth, I had a tree, just basic things, and that felt OK to me,” she said.
“Traditions have really gone out the wayside,” said Lehner. After her husband’s passing, her children invited her over to spend time with them.
“Get away from the routine because it will never be the same,” she said.
Think about doing something different this year. The first year after her niece passed, Goyer’s family felt it would be hard to gather in their homes and prepare a family meal.
“We decided to go out instead. It was something we had never done before.”
Lehner said she tries to do something in honor of her husband every year, whether it is a donation or dedication in his name. This year, her church put on a service during All Saints’ Day. Members were invited to write the names of a loved one on a white tablecloth. On All Saints’ Day, the cloth was laid out and church members could light candles and set pictures on the cloth in remembrance.
The holidays may become a special time to hold a ritual in honor of a loved one.
“I have a friend who hangs a stocking in memory of her husband who passed,” said Goyer.
She and her children write down things they might buy him for Christmas this year or just write a simple note that says “I love you’ or “I miss you.”
Some people will buy toys and items in memory of a loved one.
“My niece loved jigsaw puzzles. Every year I would put one under the tree in honor of her,” said Goyer.
Some people choose to skip the holidays all together. It may be too painful to deal with so they may say, “I’ll do something next year,” said Goyer.
“There were times, during Christmas, that I just wanted to be alone. And that was OK,” said Lehner.
“Do whatever feels right to you,” said Goyer.
“One thing that has helped me out tremendously is working for Hospice,” said Lehner.
A year after her husband passed, Lehner started working for The Aultman Women’s Board Compassionate Care Center in Canton, where she volunteers her time twice a week. “I feel joy every day helping others,” she said.
After having Hospice care for her husband, Lehner feels it is her way of returning the favor. Helping others has been a “bright spot” for Lehner and helped her through her times of grief. Volunteering your time can come in many forms: preparing or serving a meal for a church service, donating money to a charitable cause, or even shopping for gifts to donate to a family in need this holiday season.
Give it time
The important thing to remember is to allow yourself time to heal, explained Lehner.
“Grief is one of the hardest things to get through. It’s taxing and you are going to be exhausted.”
Sometimes 10 years later, you may be doing well and something happens in your life that triggers a memory.
“There is no such thing as getting over [someone],” she said.
But you can find ways to make it better.
A single stocking and small cardboard Snoopy Christmas display on the fireplace mantel are the only decorations Lynn Lehner will have in her home this Christmas.
It will be the first time she has decorated in three years since her husband’s passing, and for her, it is OK.
For more resources on dealing with grief during the holidays, read Goyer’s articles: Grieving Through the Holidays and Dealing with Grief through the Holiday Season, 10 Things to Get You Through This Difficult Time.
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