Monday, November 9, 2015

How to Prepare for A Widow's First Christmas

Tidings of Comfort and Joy?
Facing the holidays after bereavement

When you’re grieving the death of a family member or friend, you may dread the holiday season. Thoughts of social gatherings, family traditions and obligations leave you anxious and overwhelmed. Your sadness can seem unbearable. You may wish you could skip these next two months and go straight to the routine of the next year—but you can’t. What can you do to lessen your stress and loneliness?
Holidays trigger tough emotions
           You can start by learning what emotions are normal and to be expected when facing the holidays without your loved one. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed as this holiday season approaches, that’s very normal,” advised psychologist Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge, whose first husband died. “You’re probably wondering how you’re going to handle this and are unsure of what course to take. I want to assure you that you can get through these holidays, and hopefully you can even find moments of joy.”
            When you know what to expect, you won’t be rendered helpless as holiday events trigger unexpected emotions. Make a point to spend time talking with people who have experienced a past loss and have already been through a holiday season without their loved one. They can help you have an idea of typical emotions and emotional triggers to expect. These people can also provide much-needed comfort and support.
Creating a holiday plan will help
            Another important step in surviving the holidays is to create a healthy plan for the coming season. “Planning does help you to have a little control, even when you feel totally out of control,” said Dr. Zonnebelt-Smeenge. A healthy plan involves making decisions in advance about traditions, meals, time spent with others, holiday decorating, gift-giving and commitments.
            You will likely not have the energy or the interest in doing as much as you have in past years. Decide ahead of time which invitations you’ll accept, and let the host or family member know that you might leave early. Consider whether your decorating will be different this year: perhaps a smaller tree or simpler ornaments. If you cook or bake, cut back.
            Make a list of every holiday tradition you can think of, from music to presents to outings. Then decide which traditions will be too difficult without your deceased loved one, which traditions you’d like to maintain, and what new traditions you can start this year.
Communicating with family and friends
             What’s also helpful in facing the holidays is to communicate your specific concerns and needs with your family and friends. People in grief are often tempted to put on a mask and pretend things are fine, especially over the holidays. “I didn’t want to put on a damper on anyone else’s joy,” shared Mardie. “So I put on a happy face and tried to be the sister, the daughter, the aunt, that everybody wanted to see. Putting on that happy face was a heavier burden than I was emotionally able to carry at the time.”
             Your friends may want you to “cheer up” and “have fun,” when that’s the last thing you want. Others will avoid you because they don’t know what to say and don’t want to make you feel worse. Some family members will give you wrong advice in a misguided attempt to help. All of these people likely mean well, but will only end up hurting you if you don’t communicate what you truly need from them.
            As difficult as this may be, it’s important to tell people what they can do to help and what they are doing that isn’t helping. And if you don’t have the energy or inclination to talk to people face-to-face, then write your thoughts, concerns and needs in a letter or email. What’s important is that you are being honest and gracious in your communication.
            In describing the first holiday dinner after she was widowed, Dr. Zonnebelt-Smeenge said, “It seemed like no one wanted to talk about my husband. I kept waiting for somebody to bring up [his name]. After a while I couldn’t stand it anymore. I excused myself and left and bawled all the way home. Later I decided maybe they were waiting for me to decide if it was okay to talk about him; maybe they were afraid if they said anything, they’d make me feel worse. From that time on when I went to an event, I found a way to let people know I wanted to talk about him and I wanted to hear their stories.”
            So where can you find out what emotions to expect over the holidays, how to create a healthy plan and how to communicate with family and friends these coming weeks?
Attend a Surviving the Holidays seminar.
            A GriefShare Surviving the Holidays seminar offers practical, actionable strategies for making it through the holiday season. At this two-hour seminar, you’ll view a video featuring advice from people in grief who’ve faced the holidays after their loss. You’ll hear insights from respected Christian counselors, pastors and psychologists. You’ll receive a Holiday Survival Guide with over 30 encouraging readings, helpful charts and tips to manage the holiday season during this difficult time.
            At GriefShare Surviving the Holidays, you’ll meet with other grieving people who have an understanding of what you’re going through. They won’t judge you or force you to share, but will accept you where you are and will offer comfort and support. “When I went to GriefShare,” said Marion, “I realized there are different ways to grieve.”
           Your holiday season won’t be easy; your emotions may ambush you and suck you under at times. But you can choose to walk through this season in a way that honors your loved one and puts you on the path of health and healing.
           To register or find out more about GriefShare Surviving the Holidays, google their website today and enter your zipcode to find one near you.
Source: GriefShare

Another excellent help for grief during the holiday season is a newer ministry called Grief Care Fellowship. My husband and I will lead a seminar using their "Grieving Through the Holidays." It is very similar to Surviving the Holidays, but we'll have more time for discussion and interaction since we won't use an entire video. If you're in the Florence, SC area, please register with Kent Kendall at "Grieving Through the Holidays" will be held at Florence Baptist Temple, Saturday, November 14 from 10 - 11:30 a.m. and is free of charge. Each attendee will be provided with a student notebook filled with practical helps, ideas and plans to help navigate through the holidays. Please let me know if you plan to come so I can be sure to meet you. Thanks!


  1. Thank you for this Ferree! Most helpful!

  2. Hi Ferree -

    GriefShare is a wonderful support group! They helped me weather the storms and told me what to expect.

    The first Christmas after my husband died, I was recovering from a serious fall and facing major surgery in January. In some odd way, that focus took the edge off the holiday pangs. People asked me about my health rather than grief.


  3. Hi Susan, That surgery must have been a blessing in disguise! I'm glad it's past and you've found a ministry and new purpose in your writing. We're having our first Surviving The Holiday event this Sunday, so I hope it helps others as much as it helped you.
    So good to hear from you!

  4. Thank you for posting this Ferree. I know my holidays are going to be so lonely without my Ben. We didn't really do a lot of celebrating, but at least we were together for the holidays every year. We had no children and so I will be totally alone for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I know I will get through those days, but they will be sad for me.


  5. Leah, I'm glad you found this helpful and hope this first Christmas without your husband will be rich with memories and God's comfort.

  6. Dear Kay, If you'd like to be alone on those days, that can be an important step in your journey. But be sure to let friends know if you'd like to join them or have them come visit you. On Thursday I'll be featuring a book with some great help, too. Be open to some new ways of observing these holidays now that you're stepping into this 'new normal.' ((hugs)) to you, and thank you for your comment.

  7. Its a terrible experience sitting in a table without Steve every single day and night. Hate this first Chritmas.

  8. Hello Ferree,

    I have found it absolutely necessary for me to have a plan for Christmas. The first Christmas after David's death, I spent alone. We had no family. Not a good idea. Neither was sharing with other families. I felt like a fifth wheel, or a charity case, although folks meant well.

    The next year I went to Nashville with a tour group and had a great time. The following year I went with a tour group to New Hampshire's White Mountains. Another fabulous time. Last year all I could find was New York City, so to NYC I went and had an amazing time. This year I'm booked to go to Frankenmuth, MI, a lovely Bavarian Village.

    It doesn't matter where I go, as long as I'm not sitting home alone.

    The bus tours work well for me. They do all the work and the planning. I just show up. Because I have had Stage 3 Cancer and then Congestive Heart Failure after my husband died, my strength is so limited, but I can still have a wonderful life, making new friends, getting "out there", and making sure I am constantly building community in my life "one conversation at a time".

    This week one of the baristas at the Starbucks I frequent almost daily said, "You have an exciting life." Yes, I do. God is good. He opens doors, and the more doors I walk through, the more doors seem to open. It's all documented in my stack of Gratitude Journals.

    I love the encouragement you provide here, Ferree. Yours was one of the first websites I discovered as a new widow. Thank you from my heart.

    God bless you and all who visit here.
    Honey Bee

  9. Honey Bee! I always love hearing from you. What a "coincidence," too---I'm sure it was a divine coincidence. Yesterday I was helping with a holiday grief seminar and we talked about this very same topic. Your experience will really help a lot of people, it's full of encouraging examples. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this out. Would you mind if I paste it in a stand-alone blog post? I'd love for everyone to read it.

  10. Ferree,

    Yes, you may certainly use my comment in any way you choose. If it helps even one person find more sunshine in life, it will be well worth sharing. Life is for celebration (among other things, of course) and people really notice if you are "happy". Christians and non Christians alike.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond. It means a lot to me.

    Honey Bee

  11. Thank you for this. I've been thinking of what I want to do vs what I need to do for the sake of my kids. I can't get away with not decorating. I'm grateful a couple of friends offered to help with that.

    I already promised his parents we would spend Christmas with them and I believe we do need to be together. But I'm thinking of taking the kids away for a few days afterward.


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