Getting Through the First (fill in the blank) Without Mom or Dad

I caught up with a long-time client last week. After losing her mom this year she’s having a difficult time coming to grips with how to handle the fast-approaching holiday season. She has suffered an immense amount of loss in the past five or so years, having lost her husband, her father, her brother, and now her mother, leaving “J.,” as we’ll call her, with no close family except for an adult son.

“Hey, what are we doing for Christmas dinner this year?” the son asked casually one day, not long ago.

Something about this simple question just unhinged her, J. told me, and so I suggested that we meet to discuss the underpinnings of her feelings and to make a suitable plan for her, especially after such prolonged turmoil and grief.

It’s important to note that through all of her loved ones’ illnesses, some which were extremely grueling and drawn out, J. lovingly cared for and nursed each family member until the very end. No one passed at hospice; all died at home.

J. could use some attention for herself right now. Like a wilted flower, she needs to be hydrated, tended to, and nourished.

That plan most likely does not call for cooking inordinate amounts of food for two people, and creating an unholy mess for herself to later clean up all by herself. An expensive, blend meal out for two in an overcrowded restaurant also falls flat. She needed a change of pace.

“What’s your very favorite thing to do?” I asked J.

“Travel. I love to travel,” she told me. I learned also that in recent months, J. has taken several trips—some as short as a weekend to reunite with her high school chums and others as long as a three-week tour through Italy and France—with total strangers, no less. This is what feeds her soul.

And so it’s been settled. J. and a pal from high school, also in a similar familial situation, are planning their holiday-timed trip(s). The grown son is on his own—where he needs to be.

And while we all have different realities to tend with, if you, like J., find yourself facing your own first holidays minus your parents or the family members who’d made your holidays special, here are some tips for getting through that first holiday season of change, using this change as a jumping off point to do something new:

  1. To the best your own situation allows, make this holiday season more about you—your comfort, your happiness, your health, your dreams and wishes (within reason of course). No one way is right for every person who’s been grieving.
  2. Change it up. If you have your own family to think about, for example, taking off on a vacation without them may not be realistic or even kind. However, a weekend retreat or class (yoga, art, knitting, pottery, writing, etc.) may be just the thing to rejuvenate your spirit and to get you through the grunt work of the season.
  3. Tired of always hosting Thanksgiving dinner? Tell your sister it’s her turn.
  4. Resolve to make the holiday season a grief-free zone. Tell happy stories during get-togethers, share your favorite memories on your Facebook page, hang photos of loved ones in good times, etc. Remember they would only want your happiness today.
  5. Create an entirely new, updated menu for your family to enjoy. Ask everyone to contribute either an idea or a dish. It may be a total flop—one which you will all laugh about next year, or, some dishes may make their way into future family tradition.

So what is it that you love to do? What would brighten your own upcoming holiday season? Sometimes we could all do with a little changeup, regardless of where we are in our lives…

PSA cautionary note: Please know that a changeup does not mean camouflaging the residual grief. Face it and put it in its place. A setting for reflection, a moment of memorializing, an effort to imitate a fragment of the past—each can serve to contrast and sanctify new pleasures found.

I am here to help you and your family dialogue your way to your own workable solutions to whatever may be happening in your lives right now. Let me help you identify the changes that you could set into motion for a more harmonious household down the line.

All my best,
Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.

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