"I don't know how you got through that."
"You must be so strong."
"I could never handle what you've been through."
These are all comments I've heard at various times over the years. They were spoken when I cared for ill relatives and after their deaths. I heard them when I found myself facing ordeals I never anticipated. And two years ago, they were said when my son died.
Truthfully, I don't know precisely how I got through any of those times either. I know I never felt strong. I also know I didn't have a choice about handling the challenges that were part of my life.
I've come to think of myself as resilient, but that's only in retrospect. I believe no one knows how they'll respond to unwelcome change until it happens. And once it does, our biggest challenge is to deal with the reality of our situation. If we can't change the situation, then we must figure out how to adapt to it.
Easier said than done, right?
When I first heard my son was killed, an anguished "NO!" rose up from my heart and screamed into the night. There was no acceptance, no understanding, and certainly no will to adapt. But over time I recognized that change was here whether I liked it or not. I had to stop staring at a closed door and find a way to turn the no into a yes. Not yes in the sense that it's okay or that I like it. But yes meaning I will inhabit my reality and move forward.
As anyone who has ever been through something terrible will agree, holiday time presents a special challenge. Some want to skip the holidays altogether, sensing that the pain of loss is just too raw. I realized that life had irrevocably changed, and I had to invent new ways of moving through each day in order to create something new. If every aspect of life was going to be different, I could actually choose how I wanted to observe special days.
The most important thing I can tell you is to plan ahead. Don't wait until the day arrives to think about how you want to spend it. Take some time imagining different options (this is where you can get creative), as adapting cherished traditions can be very meaningful. Discuss your thoughts with family members and enlist their support.
Have realistic expectations at this time of year. As you decide on your holiday schedule, keep an eye on your energy level to avoid overwhelm. Are you really up for having the whole gang over and doing all the cooking this year? Do you feel like attending office parties and other get-togethers? How might you modify your usual holiday routine? Decide what's doable for you and stick to it. It's okay to say no to one-too-many invitations.
Identify a support person who will check in with you periodically throughout the day or evening. When you're going through a difficult time, you might not recognize a need to take a break, go for a walk, or even go lie down for a little while. Your support person and you can also develop a signal that says, "Get me out of here," if you do become exhausted or stressed.
One of the best ways to get out of your own head during the holidays is to help others. Volunteer some time to any organization that benefits others, as long as it fits with your values and feels healing. Make sure the work you volunteer to do is realistic for you at that time. If you're hosting a holiday meal (and you have plenty of help) you can also invite someone who doesn't have a place to go this year.
It's important to honor your Self as you go through the holiday season. Choose ways of adapting that make sense for you. My touchstone is always to ask myself if something feels healing, and I offer that if it's useful for you. You will also come up with your own criteria for determining holiday options.
However you choose to mark this year's holidays, I wish you a very meaningful celebration.
Essays on Grief Resilience