A Few Tips For Surviving The First Holiday Season After Loss

by Elaine Roth
Scary Mommy and FatCamera/Getty

In the days approaching my first New Year’s Eve after my husband died, good friends reached out and invited me and my kids to celebrate the night with them. We received invitations to large parties and small get-togethers. We were invited to spend the night or just spend a few hours. I weighed all the options and delayed getting back to anyone. The truth was, I didn’t want to do any of it. I wanted to stay home. I didn’t want to usher in a new year at all, but if I had to I wanted to do it only with my two children. I didn’t want to pretend to be okay and I didn’t want to bring anyone down by not pretending. I wanted to curl up under a blanket with my kids and let the night be whatever it would be. Ultimately, I didn’t have to get back to anyone. Fate made the decision I couldn’t make. My daughter came down with the flu and we stayed home from all of it. We watched movies and baked brownies and grieved and celebrated and survived.

Ever since I started publicly writing about my grief, my young widowhood, I’ve been receiving messages and emails from other grievers and other young widowers. Often, the people behind the message are just seeking a space to share their story, and I’m happy to listen. After all, that is why I write too—simply for a space to share my story, to feel seen and heard in a world where it’s easy to feel invisible.

But frequently, especially around the holidays, I receive messages from grievers and young widows and widowers seeking advice for the holidays. The question is always some iteration of how. How do I survive the first holiday season after a loss that has devastated me? How do I make this easier for my kids? How is the world still spinning and time still moving forward when it feels like it should have all fallen apart a thousand times before?

The answer that comes to mind is always the same: I don’t know.

I don’t know because that first holiday season is hard–cruelly hard–and my heart breaks for anyone who has to experience it. I don’t know because I know only what I have lived and I don’t even know if I lived it right. But then, saying I don’t know isn’t exactly helpful. And the whole point of writing my grief is to help, to create a little light in the darkness loss has left me with.

And maybe I can’t offer professional tips, but I can offer advice that has worked for me, without promising it will work for anyone else.

Remove the word “should” from your vocabulary and listen to your heart.

There are no “shoulds” in grief, especially in that first year after loss. There may be pressure from family and friends to act a certain way or do a certain thing, or even pressure coming from yourself to make the holiday what it’s always been, but don’t let “should” dictate your holiday season. The moment I stopped telling myself I should go out for New Year’s Eve (thanks, of course, to the intervention of fate—my daughter was fine, by the way!) I felt more at peace than I had in weeks. The next year, when New Year’s Eve came around, I didn’t even pretend to “should” myself. I packed our bags and escaped the “shoulds” and ushered in the new year with my kids in a way we never had before.

Give your grief space and also make room for more.

Grief demands to be felt. I’ve tried to outrun and outmaneuver and push aside my grief more times than I can count. Each time, I thought I’d beaten grief, thought I’d cured myself of it. Each time, grief came to pull me under with a fierceness I should have expected. Now, instead of fighting grief, I make space for it. I know I need time alone in grief, and I plan to make sure I have it.

But also, I’ve learned to make room for the joy. If you know loss, you also know that tomorrow isn’t always promised and if you have a reason to laugh or smile or be excited, then take it. I know that first laugh feels like a betrayal—it’s not. I know that first flash of excitement for something that is purely yours feels like a desertion—it’s not that either. It’s simply part of surviving, of living after loss.

Say their name. Tell stories about them. Bring them with you into all the moments.

The first New Year’s Eve without my husband, my kids and I talked about their father, my husband. We talked about the last holiday we spent with him, when he was too sick to be himself and all the holidays before. We made him cards and cooked his favorite foods, and kept him with us in whatever way we could. It didn’t fix the grief, but it helped to have him here in some way, in any way.

Surviving the holidays after loss is hard and it hurts, and there are no mix of words or tips that will make that statement untrue. That sounds harsh, but also, hopefully freeing. Because the real truth is that you survive the holidays after loss because you do. Because your lungs take in breath by muscle memory, and your heart beats by instinct, and you survive because you’ve survived so much to get here. The real truth is you’ll survive again and again, and then one day you’ll look up and realize you’re thriving, right alongside all that surviving.