We lost parents suddenly and tragically when we were young adults: Rebecca’s mom to a car accident and dad to a heart attack, Gabi’s dad and stepmom to homicide. Most friends and coworkers our age hadn’t lost close relatives outside of grandparents and couldn’t even begin to relate to the special hell we were going through. So in addition to already being incredibly sad, we also felt totally isolated.
This was especially true at times when the culture, calendar, and e-marketers insisted we were supposed to be merry and bright. The season from Thanksgiving to New Year's was particularly pernicious, with all the songs about miracles and joy, all the holiday cards featuring families who hadn’t just received the worst news ever, the Home Alones and Christmas Vacations on repeat showing adorably dysfunctional yet loving (and, more important, alive!) family members.
How to cope with grief during the holidays
Even now, more than a decade on for us both, this time of year can still provide a heavy dose of grief triggers as we navigate the season of good cheer with our kids but without our parents. Through trial and error, we developed some strategies that honor our late loved ones, all the while helping us cope. No one of these alone — heck, not even all of them together — can erase the bittersweet twinge that accompanies this season, but hey, we take what we can get.
1. Share the things they loved with others in your life.
Infuse the inevitable materialism of the season with some meaning. Take your partner and kids to your late mom’s favorite restaurant for a holiday meal, and order the most decadent dessert for the table. (Mom would have — or maybe she wouldn’t have, but convince yourself of the former and do it for her.) Buy your Lego whiz of a third-grader an erector set, just like the one your late father played with obsessively when he was 8.
2. Dust off their ritual objects.
You may be inclined to banish your late parents’ menorah or collection of delicate Christmas ornaments to your own personal grief museum, a.k.a., storage. After all, it can feel oddly transgressive to use their stuff in their absence. But remember, you have these things for a reason — and that’s probably because the deceased wanted you to have them. And it’s a beautiful menorah. (OK, so maybe it’s an ugly menorah, but that’s part of its charm.)
3. Check in with friends whose losses were recent.
Remember that first holiday after a loved one died — when you wanted to deck anyone daring to wish you a “happy” or “merry” anything in their boughs of holly? Reach out to someone who has suffered a more recent loss. (We love digital but highly recommend an actual note, in an actual envelope, with an actual postage stamp.) Let them know you’re thinking about them at holiday-time, that you’ve been there and are ready to listen when they’re ready to talk. It’s a small, but powerful act, and it’s a testament to your late parents, because they raised you right.
4. Start your own traditions.
Your parents probably came up with most of those magical traditions you loved as a child. Really, what are the odds your great-great-great-grandfather took the kids to Denny’s for some Moons Over My Hammy after picking out the old Christmas tree, and securing it to the top of the Buick? By keeping this in mind, you might embrace the opportunity to come up with something creative and quirky that your own kids will remember as nothing but pure magic. After all, that’s in the same tradition as what your parents did for you: start something new.
5. You do you.
Rolling your eyes at this piece? Feel like the only thing that will truly help is to sit on the sidelines at end-of-year festivities and let other people — your partner, relatives, friends, complete strangers — take the lead in planning activities and presents for the whole family? Totally cool. As long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, do what feels right. Speaking of what feels right, you have our permission to buy yourself one hugely irresponsible gift this time of year. The knee-high suede boots you’ve eyed for the last four winters? A shiny new tech toy? Make a choice and enjoy, just like your mom would have done with her favorite dessert.
6. Let joy in.
Those first holidays after the loss of a loved one may feel something like 98 percent awful, and 2 percent bearable. And that’s a generous split. We promise: it gets better. And when it does, give yourself permission to rejoice in happiness, whatever the source: your cousin’s new baby, your sister-in-law’s wildly inappropriate joke at the dinner table, staring at the Yule log on TV, pecan pie. Dad loved pecan pie, and even if he didn’t, you have permission to dig in.
Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner are the coauthors of "Modern Loss: Candid Conversations about Grief. Beginners welcome." (Harper Wave, 2018).
Editor's Note: This article was first published on Dec. 18, 2017, and has been updated.