It is a lost feeling, this grief. My family, like everyone’s family, is a unique island and with each loss, I feel like I am in a rowboat that drifts slowly away from the island. I look back and can still see the beauty of it, but it changes the further I drift away from it and I know the day will come when I will hardly recognize it at all.
Suddenly, as so often happens, the holidays are upon us. I know that this time of year can be difficult for a lot of people. Worries about money, family tensions, loneliness, and a host of other concerns are often heightened during the holidays. For surviving siblings—or any other grieving person—the holidays present unique challenges. We often stand on the sidelines, watching the rush of shoppers spending money they do not have on gifts that people do not need with the knowledge that our beloved sibling’s name will never again be part of our holiday shopping list. We switch off the radio as Burl Ives enjoins us to have a “Holly Jolly Christmas” because for us, there will be little of either. We can’t bear to watch the seasonal favorite film “It’s a Wonderful Life” when life for us seems less than wonderful.
Cherished family traditions can seem out of place without our brother or sister as we struggle to find some sort of way to commemorate the day and still honor our sibling’s memory. But quite often, we are at a loss at just what to do, especially if the death is a recent one. Despite the challenges surviving siblings face during the holidays, there are a few things that can make navigating them less painful. Because we all grieve in our own way, some of the following may be helpful to some surviving siblings, but not helpful to others. Even if none of the suggestions seem right for you, I am hoping they might at least inspire you to think of other ways to cope.
1. Set Limits: Parties, family dinners, decorating, shopping, and all of the other activities associated with the holidays can seem overwhelming to someone who is dealing with loss. It is important to set aside some time and decide what you think you can and cannot do and the set limits. Do not allow others to goad or guilt you into attending an event or participating in an activity that you do not feel is right for you. You do not need to explain or rationalize your decision not to attend, say, the office Christmas party. Setting limits can help you to feel some sense of control at a time when things seem very much out of your control.
2. Story Telling: As friends and families gather together for the holidays, it is common to reminisce about the past—the people and events that made previous holidays so memorable. Recalling stories from the past is like thumbing though a scrapbook in time. Each “verbal snapshot” of turkey carvings, tree-trimmings, menorah lightings, or parties from New Years past is linked to those near and dear to us. While such memories can sometimes cause a new wave of grief, telling stories and sharing memories remind us that our brothers and sisters are still a part of our family; they live on though us and in us. After all, our brothers and sisters serve as sacred witnesses to our lives—the only people who truly know what it was like to grow up in our particular family. We honor the vital role they played in our lives when we share the scrapbook with others.
3. Try Something Different: If the old way of doing things seems too painful without your sibling, then perhaps it is time to try something different. For example, grief counselors observe that death often amplifies dysfunction in families. If this is the case in your particular family, consider taking a trip, spending the holidays with friends, or having a quite time at home. It sometimes takes a few tries to find something that feels right for you, but recognizing that holidays will never quite be the same without your sibling may be the catalyst you need to try something different.
4. Be Selective: Make a conscious effort to spend time with people who understand what you are going through. Whether this is one person or a dozen, arrange to spend some time with people who both affirm your loss and who have supported you during this time. The holidays offer you a unique opportunity to thank those in your inner circle; a card, small gift, or just a sincere expression of gratitude can be beneficial to both you and those who have walked beside you in your journey of grief.
5. Step Up: Sometimes, stepping up to help others in need can help to mediate your sense of loss. Volunteering your time a soup kitchen, animal shelter, or any other organization that benefits the needy can offer you the opportunity to do something good for someone else. You will see, firsthand, that you are not the only person who is struggling—and that loss comes in many guises. If you are not up for volunteer work, consider making a donation to some worthy organization or cause in your sibling’s name. Remember that when we give, we receive.
As you move though the next few weeks, try to be gentle with yourself. Grief is a process that unfolds differently for each of us and you will likely have days that are more challenging than others. Try to accept the love and encouragement from those who genuinely wish to help you and avoid those who might make you feel worse. Finally, be grateful for the moments of peace that may come your way and remind yourself that the holidays do not last forever.
Wishing you all moments of peace, TJ