As we head into the whirlwind of the holidays, it would be nice to take a second to acknowledge how difficult they may be. Everyone {specifically grieving or not} experience the holidays differently, I thought my favorite tips could be helpful. These tips have been 15 years in the making based on my own personal encounters. If you are loving someone who is grieving this holiday season, please click over to the companion piece to read about these ideas from a supporter’s perspective.

Tip 1 – Invitations: It’s easy to forget that an invitation is not a subpoena. Just because we’ve been invited does not mean that we must attend. It’s absolutely fine to be excited to get that invite in the (e)mail – and immediately be filled with existential dread and visceral aversion. You’ve been invited because the hosts love you and want you to be a part of their holiday season…and if they truly understand your situation, they will know that a ‘no’ does not mean you don’t care for them.

While my example doesn’t tie to the holiday season specifically, I still believe it is worth sharing: If you know my story you can understand baby showers aren’t really my bag. But I absolutely feel the love when I get that dainty invite in the mail – because I know the mama-to-be wants to share their joy with me. And also, directly after reading the invitation {and all the accoutrement that comes with those invitations these days} I RSVP ’no’ – then go to their registry and find the most ‘ridiculous necessity’ I can {often an overpriced pair of hard soled shoes, a baby tuxedo, or a teether in the shape of a retro Gameboy}. Just because you received an invitation does not mean you MUST attend.

Tip 2 – Permission: Congratulations for taking the hardest step; getting out of bed, dressed, into the car, and out of the house. Please don’t let it be in vain. Put one foot in front of the other. Take that one next effort to walk through the door into that event. It’s fine if you’re ‘fashionably late’. It’s fine if you can only handle a few minutes/hours being around ‘all the happy’. You’ve made a wonderful attempt to be out amongst society. I am giving you the permission to arrive as late as you need to {better late than never} and leave when your tank is drained. It is not necessary to push yourself to the breaking point. Your hosts will understand and appreciate your effort even if you ‘just make an appearance’. They know you tried your best and do not wish you ill will – even if you snuck out without saying your goodbyes.

Tip 3 – Participation: Those that really know you and want to support you also know they cannot fix your pain – they also understand that a bit of respite may help you get out of your emotional thought pattern. It’s completely natural {and even encouraged} to take a break from your sorrow. It does not mean that you love your person any less. Your friends may want to encourage you to imbibe in the festivities – and good friends might even encourage you a bit more than you’re comfortable with. That, in my opinion, just means they truly care for you. And I encourage you to take them up on their encouragement, unless you are really not in a position to do so. Then be bold and deliberate in saying you will not take part. ‘No’ can be a complete sentence.

Tip 4 – Festivities: I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘fake it til you make it’…but how about ‘fake it til you feel it’? Sometimes you’re able to do just that – and sometimes you can’t. Either way, you’ve done your best. If you were able to make it to your event physically but don’t have it in you to be there mentally, cut yourself some slack. You’re doing hard work – grieving and all. I’ve attended many a party, especially in my early grief, where it took me everything I had to get out my door and into theirs. Once I arrived, I was completely out of gas. The entirety of the event (that I could muster to stay for) had glued to the wall.

Tip 5 – Memories: The holidays can be full of all kinds of ‘triggers’ and experiences that will bring a flood of memories back to you – or even memories of hopes and dreams you had for your person. Holidays tend to be extra reminisce-y too: everyone remembering their favorite Hanukkah gift or the time Santa stayed up way too late because the screwdriver went missing… Now is the time of year for self-reflection and deep thought, if that leads to meaningful conversation about your person embrace it! Do not be afraid to share memories and stories. And/or, write them down so you’ll have those memories for perpetuity (using a physical pen and paper to write might be the best way to process what you’re experiencing – but that’s another topic for another day).

Tip 6 – Acknowledge: I’ve said it before and I will say it a million times over. Grieving is hard work – mentally and physically. If I could, I would give every griever a gold star just for choosing to get out of bed each day. You want to return to normalcy (and society tells you to hurry up and do so) because you feel you have control over the normal. So, you push yourself to attend the events, speak the words, do the jobs…but your brain often has other ideas once you get started. {I often say grief brain is like pregnancy brain, meets ADHD, meets shiny sh!t syndrome.} Remember life is a participation sport – and you’re participating – the best you can in this moment. Give yourself the acknowledgement of the effort with a ‘participant ribbon’ and try again next time…just like pee-wee soccer.

Tip 7 – Smells: Every single time I smell Old Spice aftershave and mothballs I think of my Grandpa Gunnar. Anytime I smell burning/burnt hair I think of summers as a child and puts a smile on my face (once I make sure someone’s head isn’t burning of course). While it’s not exactly prudent to light strands of my hair on fire each time I want to think about summers in the 1980’s and 90’s - I’ve found a combination of scents that closely mimic the smell and I save that combo of candles for when I really want to tap into my ‘childlike Crystal’. I bet your person has a unique smell; or the smell of an activity reminds you of them (like bread in the oven or craft store). It might not be feasible to break out the bread maker each time you want to reminisce – but, I bet you can find a candle, air freshener, or combination of both to imitate it. Once you find it, use them for special times around the year when you want to feel extra close to your person.

Tip 8 – Prayer: You may not be a ‘pray-er’ (nor am I trying to make you one) – but spending a moment during your holiday rituals to acknowledge those not physically with you can bring a lot of solace. Even if the host doesn’t allow the time, take a couple of quick beats to say your person’s name in your mind, under your breath, or straight-up out loud. There is no right time to do so – and also – there is no wrong time.

Tip 9 – Presence: Find a little tangible something that resonates with you heart about your loved one – and bring it with you to the festivities. Maybe you’re sporting their watch or have their favorite piece of hard candy in your pocket. Wear their special pair of earrings or bring their favorite stuffy and set it next to the dining room table. Your person can be with you in spirit even if they’re not there physically. Having a visual representation of them can ease your heart – even just a little bit.

Tip 10 – Presents: Did your person have unique tastes? Was your person was known for something special? Were they part of an ongoing joke? Did they have a hobby? Share those memories through gifts with other that knew them also. Maybe they loved to hike, or ride roller coasters, or play the piano. Create an event to hike their favorite trail, gift amusement park tickets, burn a CD of recordings your person favorite songs and performances. Think outside the box, a traditional gift or large expense is not necessary – especially if it comes from your heart.

Tip 11 – Traditions: Traditions may become utterly imperative or lose all meaning to you in your grief. That draw or aversion to tradition can adjust and mellow over time – just as the traditions themselves can shift.

After my Madelyn died, all of the pomp and circumstance of October through December was intimidating: constantly around family (all meaning well), asking questions, doting on us…it was just too overwhelming. Thanksgiving became ‘our’ holiday {thanks to the help of a couldn’t miss, out of town concert}. The week of Turkey Day each year we leave town, find a hotel somewhere warmer than Kansas City, and ‘veg’ – no real plans other than to rejuvenate and prepare for all the December events. No turkey, no stuffing, no pumpkin pie – just some much needed R&R.

Tip 12 – Act: Your person had favorites – meals, activities, movies, events…the list goes on… Was there a ‘favorite’ of theirs that you loved; or even hated? Maybe your person considered Die Hard a Christmas movie {IT’S NOT} so each year you begrudgingly turn it on while trimming the tree. Or, your person had special words or mannerisms while lighting the candle at sundown so you choose to continue to include those. Big, small, noticed by others or not – this one can be just for you.

Tip 13 – Grace Space: Do you ever get to an event, get overwhelmed, and immediately want to leave? Yea, me too. Especially in grief it’s easy to get overstimulated and dysregulated...(at least for me.) I end up feeling like my computer screen on overdrive: my brain has a zillion tabs open simultaneously all trying to run their little processes – none of them doing it very well. I don’t know where to focus my attention so I flit from ‘moving color’ to ‘moving color’. Somewhere music is playing – but where? Some tabs give me the spinning wheel of death, others open just fine, and a large majority of them flash with 404 errors… My brain goes into hyperdrive and is going to overheat if I don’t give it a ‘hard reboot’. So, my body starts to shut down and I have to go find a quiet place a lock myself in {the bathroom, a closet, the garage, even my car…}

The first time this happened to me I was more than a little freaked out… but after that I basically knew it would happen. I started (trying to) take precautions and plan for my little reboot session. I called it my ‘grace space’. I would think through the event before I would even show up: who would be there, the layout of the space, my exits…everything. I would do my best to pre-plan who I would talk to, where I would stand, and most importantly when I did get overpowered by emotions and ‘freak out’ where I would go to calm down. I would do my best to just slip away – and knowing where I was going helped me from making a big scene. Also, having a spot to go (that’s wasn’t just my car) helped me to cool off and then return to the festivities… {When I would use my car to regroup it was far too easy to just start the engine and drive away. My brain would say; “You’ve already made a big scene and you’re already sitting here you might as well leave. No one wants you to be there anyway…” and so I would…} Having a predetermined space within the festivities allows you the grace you need to regroup then reintroduce yourself into the party.

Early on, I would visit my grace space several times during an event. I needed that physical space and held onto it like my safety blanket. Over time, I would use it less and less – but always knowing it was there if I needed it. Now, a decade plus into my journey, I really don’t even think through this exercise unless I’m attending a big new event. More than anything, just knowing how I was going to handle my ‘freakouts’ when they happened in public {because they will happen in public} provided just a little more clarity and control in a life that felt so discombobulated.

Hopefully, these tips can bring you a bit more clarity and solace during this time of (often) forced joy. If you’ve like to hear these same tips from the griever’s lover’s perspective, please read the companion article here. And, more than anything, know that your emotions are at an all-time high throughout this season – but that doesn’t disqualify your emotions. They are ALL valid. Please allow yourself the grace to stay calm and find joy in the festivities as we move into the new year.