There’s a heaviness that starts to grow in my heart when we hit the month of November. Talk of Thanksgiving and Christmas fills the air, and my mind starts to go dark with feelings of dread. It wasn’t always this way. This used to be my favorite time of the year – especially Thanksgiving.
I loved everything about Thanksgiving. I loved the Fall, the food, the coming together of family. We are a family full of traditions and one of those traditions has been to give everyone 3 kernels of corn at their place setting. Before we went into fill our plates full of food, we would go around the table and list people and things we are grateful for as we drop each kernel into the crystal dish that safely holds those kernels year after year. There were always tears in our eyes as we got emotional remembering how much we love each other and appreciated the opportunity to say it out loud around the table.
As my kids grew older, they each participated in Thanksgiving in different ways. I would often let Emily stay home from school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving so she could assist me in all the preparations. It was our special mother daughter time. She has grown into an incredible woman who enjoys hosting her own family dinners now and I’m so very proud of her. Tyler loves to cook and would bring home new recipes he wanted to try and friends that liked to come by and say hello. He’s still incredibly helpful and is much better in the kitchen than I ever was! The other traditions around Thanksgiving came from it being Connor’s birthday at Thanksgiving.
Connor was born the day before Thanksgiving, and we brought him home on Thanksgiving Day so we could go to my in-law’s home to celebrate. We often had birthday parties the Saturday after Thanksgiving and celebrated with cousins and friends when Connor was young. As he got older, I started making Paula Deans overnight French toast for his birthday breakfast.
Christmas was full of traditions too. We were very involved in our church as a family so there were often musicals with the kids participating in various ways. We read devotionals with the kids so that they understood what Christmas was all about – the gift of a Savior from a loving God. We celebrated the birth of Jesus and not just Santa. We attended the Christmas Eve service and had dinner at Grandma Mary and Grandpa Dave’s where the kids opened presents from their grandparents. We came home, opened new pajamas, listened to Dad read the Christmas story from the Bible and put out cookies for Santa. The next morning the kids opened way too many gifts and, we were happy.
Connor died the day after his birthday on November 28th. Now the months of November and December are not the same. Part of the reason they aren’t the same is because the kids have grown up, so naturally things must change. Emily is married and she and her husband Bryan are starting their own traditions as it should be. Tyler lives in San Diego with his girlfriend Brooke and dog Layla and they are also very happy. But Connor is missing. He would be 30 years old now so I can’t help but wonder what he would be doing today. As I see his friends and cousins growing up and getting married and having children, there is a pain in my heart for what might have been.
How do I deal with my grief during the holidays? I will say that it is something that has developed over the last 5 years. The first few years can be extremely overwhelming. The following are tips for Grievers and for those supporting someone grieving during the holidays based on my personal experience both positive and negative. I was blessed with a supportive family and great friends. I was also blessed with an incredible support group – Hearts of Hope. Many great ideas about how to navigate the holidays came from my wonderful sisters in this group.
TIPS FOR GRIEVERS
Tip #1 – Plan for your grief
The best advice I can give to the one who is grieving is to be prepared. That may sound strange but sometimes the worst part is the anxiety leading up to the day. Knowing that you have a plan for a specific day, whether it’s a holiday, birthday or anniversary, can relieve some of that anxiety.
Tip #2 – Include others in your plan – don’t go it alone.
There are probably others who are also grieving your person and don’t know what to do, or they want to support you in your grief and are at a loss for how to help. If you’d like to have your family remember your person at Christmas, invite someone else in your family to help you plan something. Perhaps you would like to read a poem at dinner or just share a memory – getting someone else to help will take the pressure off you.
Tip #3 – Be kind and gentle to yourself.
You need time for you so don’t commit to others. You may not be able to do the things you have done in the past for this holiday and that’s okay. Someone else may need to do the shopping, the cooking, the decorating or the wrapping. Or perhaps those things don’t get done this year and that’s okay too. You have permission to say “no” to anything you don’t feel like doing. Celebrating is counterintuitive to the way you are feeling. Christmas comes around every year so if you need to skip it this year, that’s okay.
Tip #4 – Start a new tradition remembering your person.
There are lots of ideas for how to begin a new way of remembering someone during the holidays. For me, knowing that I can put our Connor’s wreath and Angel Tree each year makes doing my decorating a bit easier. I will list some of the ideas that me and my friends have used.
• Write a Christmas Card or letter each year and put it in their stocking
• Make a wreath with their ornaments from the past
• Create a Christmas tree with ornaments just for them – you can add a new ornament each year. Some people call this their “Angel” tree.
• Put a Christmas wreath or holiday flowers at the cemetery
• Remember your person in a Prayer before the Holiday dinner
• Donate to an organization in memory of your person
• Decorate their memory garden with lights
• Share memories of your person at a special meal
• Go on a walk with others to a favorite place of your person – share memories along the way
• Light candles and read a poem or scripture.
• Create something that helps you and others remember – this could be something physical or virtual like an online tribute.
• Share their favorite Bible verse, poetry, artwork or anything that was special to them with others
Tip #5 – Allow time to Feel Your Feelings
You will need to cry so let the tears flow. Keeping them bottled up isn’t good for you. Crying can be a good release for that tension and anxiety you are feeling so let it go. Cry it out and then drink some water because you are going to need it to recover. Let’s face it, this is hard and if there was ever a time to cry, it’s now. God created us with the ability to cry for a reason and He sees us. We aren’t alone in our sorrow. “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Psalm 56:8
TIPS FOR FRIENDS & FAMILY OF GRIEVERS
Tip #1 – Say their name
Your friend or family member that is grieving this Christmas is thinking of their loved one they lost every day – all day. Contrary to how most of us think, if we mention their person’s name we are not going to “remind” them of their loss. Instead, we are recognizing that they lived, they were here, they matter, and they are missed. We all want that kind of recognition for the ones we’ve lost.
Tip #2 – Don’t Ask, Just Do
Instead of asking if there’s something you can do for the one who’s grieving this holiday season, just do something. Bring a meal over or just some cookies or snacks. Invite them to go for coffee or to go with you to an event. Bring over a poinsettia or a candle– that may be the only decoration they have this year. Send a card letting them know you are thinking about them.
Tip #3 – Give Grace not advice
More than anything, your grieving friend or family member needs grace. You may not agree with how they are handing their grief but keep your advice and opinions to yourself for now. Your presence and your patience are the biggest gifts you can give this holiday season. Unless you feel your friend or family member is unsafe, it’s best to walk beside them and not try to lead, carry or push them through their grief journey.
Tip #4 – Be a willing participant in someone’s Grief Plan
Your friend or family member may ask you to help them as they plan to remember their person over the holidays. Be willing to support them in their planning process and in whatever they need to help execute their plans. Grievers can run short on energy so you may be needed to help bring their plans to fruition. So, whether it’s helping the family to share stories at the Holiday Dinner or organizing a walk to their favorite place, be willing to take on some of the burden.
Tip #5 – Recognize your Griever’s limits
The holidays are full of celebrations and nostalgia. These are exactly the opposite of what someone grieving wants to surround themselves with so be sensitive. If they need to leave, be sure there’s a way out for them without making a scene. Recognize potential triggers before they arise if possible. Sometimes I like to imagine someone in new grief like someone who just had open heart surgery. You wouldn’t expect someone coming out of that kind of surgery to fully participate. It is the same with new grief.
I am proof that it does get better. We will be celebrating our 5th Christmas since Connor left the earth. I will write my 5th Christmas card to him this year and put it in his stocking that is hanging on our mantle. I added an angel to the outside of his stocking. There are times I feel him so close to me still. I can feel his arms around my shoulders and see him in my kitchen with his flannel pajama pants and red hoodie. I hear his laugh and smell his skin or whatever he was vaping – usually something sweet. I can remember with tears in my eyes but without completely falling apart. I can remember with a pain in my heart, but that pain doesn’t feel like it might kill me anymore. I’ve learned to live with the pain and make room for joy and laughter again. It is possible. There is hope.
Our goal at Honor Connor is to provide hope and healing to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. As we design out Grief Support Program, we would be so grateful for your involvement. Please sign up to participate in one of our focus groups this coming January, 2022. Insight from others who are dealing with grief due to loss from suicide will be valuable in providing the resources and help that so many others will need.