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Facing the Holidays with a Hole in Your Heart

By Theresa Anthony

There it was, carefully wrapped in bubble wrap and nestled snuggly in a box of Christmas decorations that I had packed up last New Years Day…Matt’s candle.

A few years back when approaching the holiday season with a huge lump in my throat, I noticed a post on Facebook by another grieving mother. She showed off a memorial candle she had just ordered with her son’s name on it. I loved the idea of having a special candle to bring out each Christmas, so I immediately placed an order for all of us, one for me, each of my two daughters, and Matt’s dad. Even though it would be a stark reminder of his absence in our holiday celebrations, somehow this little candle gave me comfort. Each year since, after finishing my decorating, Matt’s candle has been the finishing touch.

As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the holiday season can be excruciating to bear. Layers and layers of memories and traditions that were formed over the years suddenly don’t feel right anymore. So entrenched are the holiday rituals in our souls that the vacancy our loved one has left becomes a gaping hole in our homes, and in our hearts. How are we to cope with such grief?

I lost my beautiful son just over six years ago, so this is the sixth Christmas our family faces without his grin, his chuckle, his sweet, generous spirit. Although the pain remains, it is nothing compared to that first Christmas season. That Christmas fell a mere sixty days after his death, so I had absolutely zero Christmas spirit, refusing to decorate or send out greeting cards. So, on that Christmas Eve, when our family forced itself to carry on as usual, every photo of me that day shows tears in my red-rimmed eyes. It was a valiant effort by us all, but it was probably, in hindsight, a mistake to attempt normalcy at that early juncture.

My suggestion to anyone with a fresh loss is to do something completely different from the established family holiday traditions. Change the venue—have a feast at the park, go to a restaurant and see a movie, or just get out of town. It is far too painful to stick to traditions that first year.

Coping Strategies

Although the grieving process and timeline is different for each of us, it is true that time does soften the harsh edges a little bit. Human beings are hardwired for healing; it’s an innate survival mechanism that carries us from the depths of despair toward eventual healthy functioning. Healing from loss cannot be forced, and a healthy respect needs to be paid to the demands that the healing process makes on us.

It is important for us to recognize in ourselves what is real and honest—and it’s perfectly okay not to participate in the traditional festivities of the season if you just don’t feel like it. Do not force fake joy when your heart is crushed. Friends and loved ones will (should! had better!) understand.

I have found solace in the following distractions while coping with my own battered heart:

· Volunteering. Nothing gets you out of your funk like serving others who are less fortunate. Adding a couple of volunteer activities to your holiday calendar can really make a positive difference in your attitude and outlook. There are countless ways to help others, from volunteering at the local food pantry to adopting a family and providing them with a holiday meal, to inviting servicemen to join you for Christmas dinner.

· Establishing a fitness routine. Abundant research supports the evidence that physical activity aids in improving mood and one's general state of mind. Just walking for 20 minutes a day can be extremely beneficial to both your physical and emotional wellbeing. Or, get ambitious and try a new workout—Pilates, high intensity interval training, yoga, Zumba—most fitness venues offer free sessions, so why not just try them all to find the one that fits?

· Maintaining social connections. The worst thing you can do while grappling with grief during the holidays is to isolate yourself. Reach out to friends and family and make the effort to connect with them. Yes, it saps your energy to socialize while in grief mode, but do it anyway. Go watch a boat parade, have lunch at a fancy hotel, grab dinner and a movie—or just take a walk with your best friend and cry your heart out. As humans we need to connect, commiserate, and share our sorrows as much as our joys.

· Joining support networks. If the pain of loss is relentless, and you feel your friends just cannot relate, finding a group of people who have also suffered such a loss is helpful. In that safe environment, there is freedom to share about your loved one, often while sobbing your guts out, knowing that the others have an intimate understanding of your pain. If a grief group setting isn’t for you, a grief counselor is also very helpful for working through the pain.

· Taking up a new hobby. Another effective way to soothe your heart is to tap into your creative side. I began an Etsy business making Catholic-inspired wall art and jewelry in response to my intense grief, and it turned out to be very therapeutic. So, find that creative outlet—be it writing, drawing, painting, acting in a community theater, learning a new musical instrument, or singing in a choir—and allow yourself to process your grief in a constructive and beautiful way.

Above all, talk about your loved one, not only during the holiday season, but all year long. Keep their memory front and center by mentioning them regularly with loving fondness and smiles. Talk to them! These beautiful souls are watching over us, so why not talk directly to them? After all, love is an energy that never, ever dies, no matter which side of heaven we are residing in at present.

May all our hurting hearts be mended over time, and a blessed Advent and Merry Christmas to all.

Theresa Anthony is the author of My 13th Station, a memoir about the loss of her son to suicide. Available on

NEW BOOK: Hope Springs from a Mother's Broken Heart on Amazon

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