Facing the Holidays with a Hole in your Heart
There it was, carefully wrapped in bubble wrap and nestled snugly in a box of Christmas decorations that I had packed up on New Years Day…Chris’ candle. Last year, as I approached the holiday season with a lump in my throat—the second Christmas without my beloved son, Chris—I noticed on Facebook that another grieving mother had posted a photo of the memorial candle she had ordered with her son’s name on it. I immediately ordered one for myself, for his dad, and my two daughters. Even though it was a stark reminder of his absence in our holiday celebrations, it somehow helped us by giving us something tangible to focus on. This year, after finishing my decorating, Chris’ candle was the finishing touch.
As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the holiday season can be excruciating to bear. Layers and layers of memories and traditions formed over the years during this particular season suddenly don’t feel right anymore. So entrenched are the holiday rituals in our souls that the vacancy our loved one has left becomes a gaping hole in our homes, and in our hearts. How are we to cope with this grief?
We lost our beautiful son just over two years ago, so this is the third Christmas our family faces without his grin, his chuckle, his sweet spirit. The first Christmas was a mere 60 days after his death, so I had absolutely zero
Christmas spirit, refusing to decorate or send cards. That Christmas Eve, when our family forced ourselves to carry on as usual, every photo of me shows tears in my eyes. It was a valiant effort by us all, but it was probably, in hindsight, a mistake to attempt normalcy at that early juncture. My suggestion to anyone with a fresh loss is to do something completely different from the established family traditions. Change the venue—have a feast at the park, go to a restaurant and see a movie, or just get out of town. It is too painful to stick to traditions that first year.
Although the process and timeline of grieving is different for everyone, it is true that time does soften the harsh edges a little. Human beings are hardwired for healing; it’s an innate survival mechanism that carries us from the depths of despair toward eventual functioning. Healing from loss cannot be forced, and a healthy respect needs to be paid to the demands that the healing process makes on us. It is important to recognize in ourselves what is real and honest—it’s ok not to participate in the traditional festivities of the season if you just don’t feel like it. Do not force joviality! If you are not feeling joyful because your heart is crushed, don’t fake it. Friends and loved ones will (should!) understand.
I have found solace in the following distractions while coping with my own battered heart:
- Nothing gets you out of your funk like serving others. Adding a couple of volunteer activities to your holiday calendar really makes a positive difference in attitude and outlook. There are dozens of ways to help others, from volunteering to help at the food pantry to adopting a family and providing them with a holiday meal to inviting servicemen to join you for Christmas dinner.
- Get exercise. Abundant research supports the evidence that physical activity aids in improving mood and state of mind. Just walking for 20 minutes a day can be extremely beneficial to both your physical and emotional wellbeing. Or, get ambitious and try a new workout—Pilates, barre, interval training, yoga—most fitness venues offer Groupons or free sessions, so why not just try them all?
- Maintain social connections. The worst thing you can do while grappling with grief during the holidays is isolate yourself. Reach out to friends and family and make the effort to connect with them. Go to the harbor and watch the boat parade, have lunch at a fancy hotel like the Montage or the Ritz, go see a movie and grab dinner—or just take a walk on the beach trail and cry your heart out to your best friend. As humans we need to connect, commiserate, and share.
- Join support networks. If the pain of loss is relentless, and you feel your friends just cannot relate, finding a group of people who have also suffered such a loss is helpful. In that safe environment, there is freedom to share about your loved one, often while sobbing, knowing that the others have a full understanding of your pain. If a group setting isn’t for you, a grief counselor is also very helpful for working through the phases.
- Pick up a new hobby. One effective way to soothe your heart is to tap into creativity. I have been making wall décor pieces this year and it is very therapeutic, and trust me, I am no artist! So, find that creative side of yourself—be it writing, drawing, painting, learning a new musical instrument, singing in a choir—and allow yourself to process your grief in a constructive and beautiful way.
Above all, talk about your loved one, not only during the holiday season, but all year long. Keep their memory front and center by mentioning them regularly with loving fondness. Talk to them! These beautiful souls are watching over us, so why not talk directly to them? After all, love is an energy that never, ever dies, no matter which side of heaven we reside. May hurting hearts mend during this lovely holiday season.
Written by Eileen Spatz, San Clemente resident
Eileen Spatz raised her family in San Clemente. Her son, Chris Spatz, who graduated from SCHS in 2006, suffered from depression in early adulthood, which led to an alcohol addiction and, ultimately, suicide in October of 2013 at the age of 25. She has since joined in the efforts of COA in her quest to help other troubled teens and young adults before it is too late.
Please reach out to COA if you need to talk to someone.