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Whether loss of health, a job, financial reversals, or loss in death, it is difficult coping and thriving during the holidays.
This is my favorite time of year. Nearby mountains cloaked in winter white, gaggles of geese discussing where to winter, family and friends gathering and giving thanks and eating way too much pie and lighting candles and welcoming in a New Year.
And yet, the holidays aren’t the same with a cancer diagnosis, or a job lay-off, or without our loved one present. So I asked the experts—friends who have weathered profound loss—how they managed sorrow in this tidings-of-comfort-and-joy season.
A friend reported that his kids did not let him even think about not hosting the holiday meal in Vermont after their mom died: “We’ve fed as many as fifty people,” he wrote.
If you’ve always hosted the big dinner—and you still want to—but don’t have the budget or you can’t seem to shut off the flood of tears this year, then consider leaning heavily upon your friends and family. Keep the tradition and distribute the load.
In “Why Holiday Traditions Might Be More Important Than You Think,” Michele L. Brennan Psy.D., discusses the benefits of family rituals: “Whether it’s stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while the turkey cooks, or family movie night … traditions are a wonderful way to anchor family members to each other.”
Sometimes there’s a need for new traditions. My friend’s teenaged son died of cancer on his twin sisters’ birthday. The family now has a tradition of dividing up the day: “In the morning, we celebrate our son’s life, and in the afternoon, we celebrate our girls.”
Family and friends
One friend wrote about being rescued by a young couple: “They came to my home, made me get dressed, and took me to Christmas dinner with their extended family. I love their two little boys, so I had to pull myself together for them and I think they knew that.” During a time when you don’t feel as if there’s anything worth celebrating, let your family and friends love on you.
Lighting up the season
Last December, I exited a restaurant in a touristy section of town at dusk. Every tree trunk was wrapped with white lights that spread upward into the lower branches. And I found myself holding my breath at its simple beauty.
There is science behind the use of lights to help lift our spirits. Go ahead, light candles. Put up tiny white lights. Light the fireplace. Entwine more twinkly lights where you might not normally do so—I put lights in my houseplants at holiday time—and see if all that lighting-up doesn’t help chase away the gloom.
Most people on our gift lists – co-workers, neighbors, our children’s teachers – will understand if we’ve streamlined gift-giving this year. Shorten the list, or consider easy hand-crafted items: homemade granola, or a layered soup mix in a Mason jar with the recipe tied to the lid, or one of those cool hand-knitted slouchy hats. Because creating things can be seriously therapeutic. And because giving to people we love helps gladden the heart.
The Advent Conspiracy – a website that advocates spending less but giving more – suggests tickets to a ball game or a movie. And of course the tickets come with you attached: “The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself.”
When my husband, Gary, and I were dealing with cancer, we learned to count what remained instead of counting the losses. After he died, a niece gifted me with a small hardbound journal and I started a gratitude list with the goal of numbering to 1,000. When I fill my life with gratitude, there’s less room for distress.
The act of reaching out to others can help focus our attention off our own sorrow. A friend told me about spending Christmas in a children’s hospital with her infant daughter. People sang carols in the hallways and Santa delivered stuffed animals and a home-sewn baby blanket. My friend now buys stuffed animals every year and takes them to the same children’s hospital. “It’s my favorite Christmas tradition!”
Trying to manage loss on top of the normal seasonal hustle and bustle can produce double the stress. Here are a few de-stressing methods that have worked for me:
Take a walk in nature. Pay attention to what surrounds you: Snow-capped mountains, fallow fields, water rushing over boulders, birdsong, smell of pine.
Make a ‘Deposit Here’ box. Find a decorative box and label it: “Things I Will Eventually Get To, But Not This Day/ Week/ Season.” Write down all that weighs heavily upon you, then place the slips of paper in the box instead of carrying the load.
Listen to music. Choose soaring music. Il Divo. Sarah Brightman. The Canadian Tenors. Use headphones; turn up the volume. Identify the instruments. Guitar. Cello. French horn.
Keep a journal through the holidays. Write honestly about your hopes and fears. Every morning, I make a cup of tea and write in my journal, which has probably saved thousands of dollars in psychotherapy costs through the years.
Several friends, in response to my questions, indicated that their faith was a constant in the grief struggle. Our faith in a God who sees the big picture nurtured Gary and me through cancer. And now, as a widow, that same faith encircles and strengthens me.
I have a friend who was widowed when her children were young. Years later, as the daughter was preparing to leave for college, she told her mom: “When dad died it was really horrible … but I like who I became.”
Which brings me to my Christmas Wish List:
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In 2004, Marlys’ husband, Gary, was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer and given two years to live. The couple established a non-profit — Cancer Adventures — and presented at a variety of venues across the country including the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, sharing what they were doing to live well with terminal cancer. During that time, Marlys also wrote a book, Cancer Adventures: Turning Loss into Triumph, featuring 28 cancer heroes who had established purpose and meaning, and found a way to give back.
Gary lived 10 good quality years with terminal cancer, much longer than the experts predicted. After he died in November 2014, Marlys took an early retirement from the St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, Oregon, where she served as Survivorship Coordinator.
She is in the process of procuring a literary agent for her newest book, a memoir highlighting the lessons cancer taught them about living and dying well. While her story is one of setbacks, Marlys knows she has a greater purpose in life — a passion for showing people how to navigate life’s challenges, tenaciously and with heart wide open.
Follow Marlys on her website Cancer Adventures.
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