Facing the holidays after losing a loved one

Dale painting 2Two short months after my father-in-law Dale passed away our family faced the very difficult challenge of celebrating Christmas in his house – without this patriarch we loved so much. Dale was a man you couldn’t help but love. He was quirky and jolly and quite chatty – for an engineer. He pulled his large and growing family together at family events – with memorable adult Easter egg hunts, Thanksgivings that started with a speech and crazy Christmas celebrations where he put up with the antics of all the grand kids that were encouraged by his wife Hellen. The kids bounced on a mini trampoline, dressed in grandma’s clothes, and slid down the steep carpeted stairs in sleeping bags. Good times!

Then Dale died. Cancer ravaged his body, rendering him unable to swallow. The feeding tube helped for several months, but ultimately failed. There was nothing more to do. With Dale only 73, the family gathered around his hospital bed on a sunny Labor Day and said good bye.

But time marches on. Summer turned to fall. Fall to winter. Christmas was upon us. We faced it with dread. What would Christmas be like without Dale? Everyone grieves differently. Some cry. Some talk. Some turn inward. Leon, married to Dale’s oldest daughter Heidi, harnessed his artistic talents. Lovingly – he painted Dale’s face on an angel. Then used it to top the tree. Okay, it was a bit weird. And creepy. But it was also comforting to know that Dale was looking down on the family that first Christmas without him.

The next year angel Dale stayed away. And before long the house was sold and many of the Dale-centric holiday traditions went away as well. The family was quickly growing with new spouses, significant others, additional children. The Dale Christmas years were just a happy memory for all of us who had the privilege to participate in them.

With all the joyous rituals, decorations and memories that surround the winter holidays, the death of a loved one can cause stress and turmoil for those who are grieving.

Having worked with Providence Hospice of Seattle for the past dozen years, I’ve written several stories about grief and the holidays. Here’s some advice from Rex Allen, manager of Providence Hospice grief support services:

Those who are grieving shouldn’t be afraid to take the time and space needed to work through that grief.

“Going back to our roots is really important and everything on the table is up to be reconsidered,” Allen says. “What may have made sense at one point may not make sense today. The closer you are to when the death occurred, the more challenging it will be.”

It’s okay to turn down invitations to holiday events if you’re not feeling up to it. “Take out your calendar and just write `NO’ on it. When someone says, `come do this,’ check your calendar, say your calendar says `No.’ It takes a lot of courage to say `this is how I’m going to do it right now because this is what I can do.'”

The death of a loved one brings change, and change is often hard to deal with. But in reality, we are constantly changing. Instead of fearing this change, embrace it and grow from it. “The wonderful thing about the holidays – all the traditions are about remembering and renewing. They give us another chance to step back at the end of the year and say, `here is where I have grown, here is what I’m having trouble with, and I can determine what that means for me in the future,” Allen says.

While it’s important to be in the moment and reflect on the past, Allen tells grieving families to look forward as well. “Eventually as we move through this season and the days get warmer and the leaves change and come back, what we feel today will have shifted in ways that hopefully we have had the opportunity to learn and that is one of the most magnificent things about grief – it’s a teacher if we open ourselves to it,” he says.

Happy Holidays. Enjoy your traditions. Make memories.

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