The holidays are hard in the best of times. There is stress and overspending, overextending yourself and a million things to do, there is pressure to be merry and bright while acknowledging your own privilege. This time of the year is so frantic that we often see people who are not in the best health lose their fight to hang on. People are worn down and its easier to get sick for healthy people, and if you are nearing your end of life anyway the stress can be just too much for a person's body.
If you have lost someone close to the holidays, you now have to make it through every holiday for the rest of your life with the shadow of their loss looming over the festivities. Its okay to not be interested in celebrating for a year, or twenty years. Grief has no prescribed timeline. Even if you are working through your grief and the rest of the year you are doing well, the holidays are just hard.
Trying to be merry and bright in the face of trying to forge a new normal without your loved one and dealing with their anniversary of loss is an impossible task. The anniversary of loss is always hard, no matter the time of year it comes, it is hard. The date on the calendar is a dark hole that evokes memories of our lost loved ones, the good memories and the bad, while sucking the joy and color from life. Its okay to not find the same joy in the season you had before your loss, its okay for you to not be as merry and bright.
Your world has changed and taking the space to acknowledge that its not the same in the face of the world trying to be frantically joyful can make you want to retreat into yourself. Its okay to have a drastically different celebration than the one you traditionally had, you are forging a new normal everyday and sometimes a big change is the best way. Instead of trying to do the same thing with an obvious loss try changing things around. Change can not only help you acknowledge that things are different now, the loss of your loved one has altered tradition, but also help you move forward. The changing of location, the meal shared, or the decorations can reduce the hole left in your traditions by the loss of a loved one. You are not simply going on as if they will still be there to place the star on the top of the tree, or light the menorah, and feeling the loss all over when you have to do that task, but hanging a garland instead of getting a tree or getting a new menorah or changing its location is significant enough of a change that instead of feeling a hole where that person should be, you have created a new tradition. Something so different that your not just filling the gap of where your loved one should be, but forging something new.
Maybe you don't want to change anything and you just need the space to feel the loss in your routine for a year or more. You need to acknowledge that you are still grieving and its okay to grieve for as long as you need. Its okay to do it how you need to, even if that means not doing it at all. Its okay to even create a memorial out of your tradition for as long as you need.
As always, if you are unable to manage on your own, professional counseling has no shame and can be a great help in times of stress.
How have you dealt with loss during the holidays?
When we talk about death the inevitable question comes up, should we value length of time we have with our loved ones or quality of life?
No one can answer this question except you. Likely, you won't have an answer until you are nearing your end of life. You have to consider whether it is more important to be able to connect, communicate, and contribute until the end, or is your very presence what you want. This answer changes depending on your fears and your values. If you fear the end often you are going to want to have quantity but if you value the interactions you have as a healthy person you may be interested in quality.
Perhaps you are trying to make it to a wedding or a birth of a child. You might be willing to reduce your quality to extend quantity. You might be interested in getting the last few things ticked off your bucket list and be willing to sacrifice quantity to have that quality at the end.
There is no right answer. There is no way that is better for you. There is no answer that is universal and your family might be interested in having you lay low to have a longer time with you. They may want you to have that last adventure, but their desires for you are coming from their love for you, and in some ways selfishness. Often, you will have several different opinions that people are pushing at you, only you can know what you want here.
What we can do is work on letting go of the fear of death that we have while we are healthy. We need to look at what we want in our death and in our life to even be able to start to work on quality or quantity. When you are able to see, with the clarity of reflection on your life, and knowing we will all die one day, we can start to decide if quality or quantity is what we want.
Looking at our lives and deciding how we want to be remembered will help make this an easier decision. Do you want to be remembered as the matron and holding the new baby even as you slip away? Or do you want to be remembered as the adventurer climbing that mountain as your body begins to fail.
Our families are going to want what they think is best for us, it is, in the end, our decision and not theirs. If you are holding on and sacrificing quality for the birth of a child or other event you do need to face there will always be another event just around the corner. If you are willing to sacrifice time to climb that mountain, there will always be another mountain you want to climb. The cruelty and beauty of life is that there is an end. The lives of the people you love will continue to march on and you will miss things no matter how long you are able to hang on. There is always another adventure, or hike, or piece of art to make.
The only thing we can do is work through our fears of the end and decide, and reconsider as we age, what our best life and death is.
After helping plan a number of vigil plans I have noticed a theme.
People are afraid they are asking for too much. This is your death. Your family will want to do whatever they can, regardless of the difficulty.
These plans are for those last couple days of your life, when there is nothing left to do but wait, your family will appreciate your planning and have chores to do and clear instructions.
Have you ever sat vigil to a dying person who has had no plan? You sit awkwardly and look at each other. The religious members may sit in silent prayer while the secular members of the gathering are confused about what they should do. There could even be whispered arguments about what should be done, trying to do the right thing and still be respectful, it never is, of course.
Be selfish, let your End of Life Doula lead you to imagine what it will look like, and be selfish about what you want. Don't leave your family to guess. If ever selfishness is a kindness, it is now. Your family will appreciate having clear instructions, having a plan that they can follow without wondering what you might like better. Be specific, know the kind of flowers or candle scents or music. Don't leave your loved ones to wonder what they are supposed to do.
You are so loved in your life that your family will want to provide you exactly what you want as you die. You are important enough that your family will make your requests happen and they will not think that any requests are a burden.
What would you like in your vigil plan that you are afraid to ask for?
My name is Abby, my life has been touched many times by loss and grief. This life has led me to helping others navigate their own grief. I have become a INELDA trained End Of Life Doula and a hospice volunteer. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and all advice given should be treated as advice from a friend.