Thursday, December 2, 2010

Empty Chairs

By Anne Peterson

Holidays are stressful. While stress is normal part of life, somehow holidays seem to magnify our feelings. Part of this is due to expectations we have around the holidays. The images we see seem to exacerbate this.

Most commercials show a perfectly decorated house with everyone in the scene smiling. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy getting together with family and friends, but the pictures we see are not always accurate.

They don’t show some members who are not speaking to each other, or the hurt feelings because of those who decided not to come. Pictures are chosen to convey messages they want to convey.

Pictures sometimes lie. We have all taken pictures where smiles magically appear when someone yells, “Cheese.”

Holidays are difficult when you’ve lost a loved one. Even getting together with family is bittersweet. It’s great to see family, but also a reminder of those who are no longer here.

So how can we get through the holidays without white-knuckling it? Is is possible to enjoy our times together when we see the empty chairs?

I am here to say it is possible. That’s not to say it’s easy, but it is possible.

The truth is, we will miss our loved ones. It’s especially difficult if their death was abrupt. Then in addition to the loss we are dealing with the unfairness of it all.

I’ve heard it said, “So and so would not want you to be sad, they would want you to enjoy your life.”

And that’s probably true, but there is also something called survivor guilt. It’s when we feel guilty because we are here and our loved ones are gone. There’s this part of us that feels if we enjoy our lives maybe it means we didn’t value them. That we didn’t love them.

That is NOT true. My decision to enjoy my life does not translate into my not caring about my lost loved one.

Sometimes people who are grieving find doing the traditional celebrating too hard. So instead, they opt for a different kind of celebration. That’s fine.

Others find there is something calming about keeping the traditions going even though they do feel fractured. There isn’t just one way, you have to find what works for you.

Years ago I was given a copy of a booklet entitled “Handling the Holidays.” It is a compilation of true stories and practical choices written and complied by Bruce H. Conley & Karen L. Howard by Conley Outreach Publications. In it are many helpful suggestions. You can go to their website where you’ll find other resources as well.

I know of people who travel when the holidays come creating new memories for faded ones. Whatever works.

One helpful thing I’ve found is giving myself permission to feel what I feel. If I’m in a nostalgic mood and want to reminisce about days gone by with everyone there, then that’s what I do. I allow myself to be human. This works so much better than trying to suppress my sadness when it starts to come. Our feelings grow when we refuse to acknowledge them, they don’t just go away.

I miss the loved ones I’ve lost. That’s the truth.

Holidays are the loneliest times for some people who are just “hanging on,” hoping to make it through another one.

If you are grieving, one thing you can do around the holidays is pick something your loved one liked to do and do it with someone else in their memory. Something like shopping or enjoying a cup of tea in a special place. A friend of mine will make her relative’s favorite meal for Christmas.

It’s important to be kind to yourself. If a particular day will be difficult then try to ease up on other things. Grieving takes a lot of energy and can deplete us. So try and do something that gives you energy.

The holidays are sometimes hard, but there are things you can do to make them more enjoyable. And as the years pass by, you’ll see they start to get a little easier.

I remember when I made the conscious decision to lighten my load. I was grieving a great loss, but I was still making myself do all the things I had done in the past, like baking and shopping. Finally, I read how grieving takes our energy and I realized I was making everything harder. The article suggested simplifying things, doing the essentials and a couple of things I chose to do.

I felt a burden lifted. That year I didn’t bake a ton of cookies, the shopping was shared as well as the decorating. And I found it really helped. Was I sad? Yes, but I was still able to have a really nice Christmas and reserve some energy.

When people lose their loved ones they are left with empty chairs. I pray even with your empty chairs you will have a holiday season that’s full of warmth and love surrounded by those you love.

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