Here's how I've coped since grief turned Thanksgiving and Christmas into minefields. I hope these pointers make your holidays more bearable.
“Nothing is something, where something is meant to be.”
Nick Cave wrote those lyrics for Ghosteen, his album-length conversation with his dead son Arthur, and he was spot on. Even more, sometimes that nothing is everything. And loss alters everything, including our yearly observance of holidays.
For many people, Thanksgiving and Christmas are already tough. The cheery faces in advertisements and the chipper voices of holiday songs collide with our family dynamics, creating emotional dissonance. As godless socialists, we’re the oddballs of our right-wing Christian families anyway, and our relatives let us know it.
But ambivalence can turn to dread as we grieve. This was certainly the case last year as my wife Jessica and I faced our first round of holidays following our son Josh’s suicide in September 2021.
We normally looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Though prone to depression and hobbled by social anxiety, Josh positively glowed when his two older siblings returned to town. We got loud and silly as we gamed together. I would laugh harder than any other time of year. I could watch the quintessential holiday classic Die Hard with my boys, as Jessica and my daughter Liz griped about our shit taste in movies. My kids became kids again as they opened their gifts.
But the 2021 holidays were going to be a whole other matter. My kids and I would be on opposite coasts. With a house already haunted by the enormity of Josh’s absence, that silence now felt terrifying. Those joyful memories of holidays past possessed a wounding, jagged edge.
Though I wasn’t conscious of it, I began working from a mental list of guidelines to make the nearly unbearable bearable. Here’s how I used it in 2021, and plan to use it again this year.
First and central, I put myself first. In the age of Donald and Elon, narcissism gets a bad rap, but are you familiar with the notion of healthy narcissism? It’s good to be proud of your accomplishments, wear solid self-esteem, set boundaries, and practice self-care.
In grief, when coping abilities are tested to the max, healthy narcissism is essential. If you aren’t ensuring your own mental health, who will?
The first Christmas
Jessica and I put ourselves first by unilaterally canceling Christmas 2021. With our kid’s ashes barely cold, we sure as hell weren’t feeling festive: why grind ourselves down by pretending?
We informed our families that we would not be sending out gifts and asked that they reciprocate. There would be no Christmas dinner. The sole concessions to the holiday were care packages of unwrapped gifts and goodies mailed to my son Paul and my daughter Liz. We were all grieving hard, and beyond our frequent phone conversations, it felt important to send a material reminder that they were ever close to my heart.
Jessica and I intend to keep it simple again this year. I normally avoid putting dollars in Jeff Bezos’ pocket, but I’m mail-ordering the shit out of presents this year. I won’t be wrapping them, as that still feels like too much effort.
For Thanksgiving, Jessica didn’t cook, and I didn’t have sinks full of dishes to wash (our usual division of labor, since I’ve yet to meet a recipe I can’t ruin). We’re an hour from the Canadian border, so we dined on Indian food in the Vancouver exurbs. It was scrumptious, and the only fatigue came from sitting in border crossing traffic.
Walking in tandem with simplicity is a willingness to accept help. Last Thanksgiving, a couple of dear friends graciously offered to do all the cooking for us. Since their home was undergoing major renovations, we still hosted the meal, but their kind generosity will never be forgotten.
Since my son died, I’ve found it extra necessary to eliminate toxic people from holiday gatherings (not to mention my daily existence). I simply lack the bandwidth.
My mother-in-law is the only relative who lives in town. She epitomizes unhealthy narcissism, with a noxious splash of never-examined, never-improved borderline personality traits. Depending on the day, she’s a helpless waif requiring rescue or imperious royalty demanding all eyes on her dramatics. My wife is the only child of four who can tolerate having regular contact with her.
We screwed the pooch by inviting her to join us last Thanksgiving. Upon entering our home, she immediately went into performative grief mode. She walked over to my son’s urn and began speaking to him in a high-pitched voice normally reserved for babies or pets. During the meal, she demanded that my wife refill her plate (she’s perfectly capable of ambulation). To top it off, she regaled the table with an account of her near-rape experience, because what better story to tell a couple of strangers?
Need I say we won’t be breaking bread together over a holiday meal in 2022?
Additionally, when necessary, distract yourself. Grief is a 24/7 occupation. You’re not dishonoring your deceased loved one, by focusing your attention elsewhere for a while. I know it’s a cliché to say this, but the person you’re missing would not want you miserable all the time, or pushed beyond your ability to cope.
Last Christmas, the emptiness of our home oppressed and overwhelmed us. Jessica and I knew we needed a change of scenery, so we hopped on I-5 and spent two nights in Seattle. Like many things in the aftermath of Josh’s suicide, our time there is a blur, so I don’t recall if we actually had fun. I do know it distracted us. At the Seattle Art Museum, we were gobsmacked by the evocative sculpture “Mann und Maus.” We quaffed world-renowned imperial stouts at Fremont Brewing. We strolled quiet streets after a surprise snowfall.
Jessica and I don’t feel as desperate for distraction this holiday season, especially with my daughter and son-in-law coming to town. But we’re ready to take to the road if their departure hits us hard.
We know friends and family who create new holiday traditions as part of their mourning. Every birthday and Christmas since Josh’s death, my daughter Liz has bought a gift for him. I find this utterly beautiful in its love and spontaneity. Others light a candle or leave an open seat at the holiday table. Some take a long vacation over Christmas and New Year’s.
I haven’t felt a need for these things, at least not yet. Josh is almost constantly on my mind. I speak to him often. My wife and I have created a shrine on our mantle, comprised of his urn, favorite photos, and a collection of items that are distinctively Josh. These suffice for now, but I’m open to adding a tradition if it ever feels right.
For friends and family of people deep in grief, let me address you briefly. Please show empathy and respect our boundaries. Don’t hesitate to offer tangible help. (No, the vagueness of “I’m here if you need me” doesn’t count.) Don’t make it about you if we flake out on invitations or disappear for a while. We’re not doing it maliciously.
Despite the cognitive haze of bereavement, I remember every act and word of kindness. They mean more to me than their bestowers can imagine. On the downside, my hypersensitive brain recalls each boundary violation and act of disrespect. The insensitive, inflexible family member who insisted on sending a gift, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. The microaggression of cards and emails celebrating Jesus’ birth.
Lastly, to those grieving, be flexible. What worked last year might not be optimal in 2022 or 2023. Be introspective and reflective about what’s helpful and what’s detrimental.
Respected writers on suicide loss and grief tell me the first two years are typically the hardest. For me, this holiday season has been sucky but not dreadful like 2021. It’s reasonable both to prepare for hardship, and to anticipate improvement over time.
Fellow mourners, I won’t say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas. But I hope these pointers, and the knowledge that you’re not suffering in solitude, will make for a better one.