You may have noticed that I haven’t written in awhile, and there’s a really good reason for that. At the beginning of November, my mother died. Technically she was my stepmother, my mom died when I was 5, but she’s been my mom since I was 8, and I’m 42 now. Our relationship was complicated, and the blow I suffered at her loss was surprising and profound.
She had a heart attack at the beginning of November. The day after Halloween, actually. Halloween was the last time I saw her. Her heart attack was major and the doctors did everything they could, including placing her in a medically induced coma in order to try to lessen brain damage. We were by her bedside for an entire week before we finally had to say goodbye. She never woke up.
There are a lot of things I could say about that, what it was like to go through that, but right now I wanted to try to give some advice on what helped me get through the holidays, in case anyone else out there is looking for help. Because right after we lost her we had to get through both of my sons birthday parties (they turned 4 and 6), Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Eve. For me, these were especially difficult, not only because of the typical reasons, but because of our relationship, the holidays were the best times I spent with her, and because of her crippling anxiety, they were some of the only times I spent with her.
My first piece of advice for you in getting through it is to lean on others. The day after her heart attack my dad insisted I still have my 4-year-old’s birthday party. I’ll be honest, I don’t really remember it. I was still in shock I think, but my dad said that she wouldn’t have wanted us to postpone, that our lives couldn’t go on hold. So we moved forward. New friends and old friends of ours were there. They brought the food, they put up the decorations, and they made sure that his birthday was super fun for him. I wasn’t capable at the time of organizing anything (very unlike me), so I let go and let others handle it for me. That was the best thing for me at the time, and it all worked out.
I have a therapist and I talk to her about once a month. I have anxiety and I find it helps to have those discussions to maintain good mental health for me. Getting into therapy is my next piece of advice. Even if you don’t know what good it could do, you need to understand that navigating grief can be tricky. It’s not just a set group of steps you complete. It has ups, downs and sideways’. It comes and then it goes and then it comes back again. If you don’t want regular therapy, you can look for a group that focuses on grief. Oftentimes they are little to no cost as well.
My husband gave me my third piece of advice for you. Normally I am crazy for Christmas. Typically the day after Halloween I’m ready to decorate, and it takes everything I have to wait until after Thanksgiving. But this time, there was nothing where that feeling usually was. No excitement, no happiness, and as my therapist stated, no joy. And she was right. The thing that was missing was my joy. I told my husband that I didn’t feel like myself. That I was trying everything I could think of (watching my favorite holiday movies, staying after church to help decorate the sanctuary, listening to Christmas music) but nothing was working. That feeling just wouldn’t click. My husband said, “Forget about the click. Just keep going through the motions.” And he was right. That was what I needed to do. Once again, the world couldn’t stop. I still needed to create Christmas for my children. And so I did.
My therapist’s advice? Don’t overdo it. She advised that I do as much or as little as I felt like. She told me not to put too much pressure on myself. That the joy was missing, and that it was normal. So don’t push yourself. I would say I put up a little over two thirds of what I normally would do for Christmas. This year I didn’t put up our Christmas village, the tree in our front room (we still had another tree up in the living room), nor did I decorate the staircase. When I felt like I didn’t want to do anymore, I stopped. Because not only was I missing my joy, but I was tired. Grieving is hard work and it’s exhausting. And I allowed myself to just have a break.
Another thing that helped me was switching things up. Every year after my kids open their presents, my parents and my brother would come over and we’d open more gifts. I couldn’t stand the thought of her not being there, so this year we had Christmas in our family room instead. And instead of everyone going to my Grandfather’s house (her dad), they all came to our house. Changing things up a little took the edge off of her not being there. It wasn’t the same situation where her loss would have been so profound. It was a different situation and that lessened the blow for us.
My final piece of advice it to just feel it. Don’t try to push it down or ignore it. If you need to cry, do it. If you don’t feel like doing something, don’t. But be very careful that you don’t shut down. Depression can be a quick follow up when we are grieving, and it can be very easy to let it pull you down. You don’t have to force anything, but you can’t let it bury you. The important thing is that you realize that life goes on and as it goes on the grief will subside. It will become less heavy. It will come less often. So in the meantime, don’t let it suffocate you. Keep getting up, facing your day, and getting through it. Don’t worry about the click. Just keep going through the motions. And eventually, you will come out the other side.