Creating Traditions: How to Approach the Holiday Season After Loss

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The holiday season is known for being a time of joy and celebration. But it can also be hard for many people. Thanksgiving forces us to acknowledge what we’re grateful for and find the abundance in our lives, often alongside family and loved ones. Christmas also forces us to surround ourselves with people we love, and engage in the capitalistic pressure of consumerism. Of course these holidays have deeper and more sacred meanings for individual people, and there are various other major holidays (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc.) that take place around this time, but in general it can be emotionally difficult to participate in them for many. With the addition of a pandemic that has claimed 246,000 American lives and 1.3 million lives globally, this holiday season will be a challenging time of mourning. 

How do we approach a time of supposed joy after a year that has been filled with so much despair? What will it feel like to be in a season about family and happiness when so many of us have lost our loved ones, and others of us cannot physically be around our loved ones for the sake of everyone’s safety? 

For one, it will not feel good. The earlier we accept this truth, the easier it will be to cope with it. Secondly, this pain will not be individual; even though we all grieve differently and this will hurt in various ways for each person, millions of people will be feeling some sort of pain due to the melancholy irony of 2020’s holidays. All of us have suffered or witnessed each other’s suffering over the past few months. Thanksgiving may remind us to be grateful that we’ve made it this far, but it may also be a painful reminder of the things we had last year that we don’t have now. Christmas may allow us to cherish the ones in our lives with gifts to express our appreciation and spark joy in a moment when it is sorely needed — but it may also be depressing to be expected to be jolly when we are collectively not okay. 

There are less than fifty days left in 2020. For now, and beyond, alleviate yourself of the pressure to perform. The silver lining is that in prior years, if you were experiencing an internal struggle, you may have felt it necessary to pretend to be okay, instinctively responding “I’m fine” when people ask how you’re doing; because you know they can’t help you and you don’t want to burden them with your problems. This year is different, because you know that we’re all going through it: the pressure to pretend isn’t the same. Take this as an invitation to lean into your vulnerability. In an age when people’s opening greetings in their emails have gone from “I hope this email finds you well” to “I hope you are coping amidst the oppression, chaos, and constant overwhelming anguish that plagues us all,” the encumbrance to perform strength is simply nonexistent. 

If you want to cry on Thanksgiving or Christmas, do that.

If you want to be alone, do that (no, actually: it’s much safer to avoid large gatherings this holiday season so that we can slow the rising spread of COVID).

You can use this as an excuse to sit in your solitude if that’s what feels most comfortable; last year telling your loved ones you wanted to be alone for the holidays may have signaled that something was wrong, but now you’ll just look like you’re being responsible and careful about your health. But if leaning into your loved ones feels good for you in this moment, do that too (make sure that everyone gets tested).  

Regardless of who you spend the holidays with, dedicate some time to thinking about what you can do to make this moment more enjoyable for you. 

Binge as many Christmas movies as you want if that feels good. Make a list of your favorites and watch them by yourself or with your family/friends (you can also use the Netflix Party feature to have a socially distanced binge party). 

Dive into some holiday recipes. Making something at home is an easy way to busy your hands, which can in turn ease your mind. If there are traditional dishes you eat around the holiday season, find comfort in making those. Or try making something new!

And speaking of traditions, this could be a good year to create some new annual holiday traditions for yourself. For many of us, this will be the first holiday season spent without a loved one(s). If you’ve lost someone this year, give yourself space to grieve, and also understand that there is no finality to grief. It is an ongoing and never-ending process. This doesn’t mean permanent sadness; think about grief as an act of love that honors your loved one. The inevitable continuity of grief means that you will be engaging in an ongoing act of love, respect and reverence that grows and changes form over time. 

If this is your first holiday season after losing someone you love, the holidays every year afterward will never feel the same. That means you can do something this year that you continue every year afterward to bring your loved one into your celebration space, and transmute your sadness into a joyful commitment to honoring their presence in your life—whether you are honoring their presence in the past-tense or you believe that presence to be everlasting. 

You may consider building an ancestral altar. Many African traditional religions include ancestral veneration and feeding the ancestors on the altar; make a plate of food and leave it out for your loved one. This also invites this person into your life to guide you, offer spiritual support and emotional healing from the other side. 

Another option is to do something in remembrance of that person. Make a dish they like, watch their favorite movie, write a letter to them, gather their community to honor them in a ceremony of your design. Whatever your tradition is, it should be healing, uplifting, and able to be repeated no matter where you are or who you’re with for years to come. 

You can also create a tradition even if you haven’t lost a specific person, but something else: it can be as simple as your confidence. Whatever you want to honor and invite back into your life is valid: this is your time. The holidays can be hard any year, and even more so in 2020. Lean into that difficulty. Do not posture emotional, physical or spiritual wellbeing; if you’re not okay, own the right to not be okay. Trust that many others are not either, and find community among those who need it. 

Creating your own traditions means reclaiming your power to define the feeling of a moment.

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