How I’m Getting Through a Tough Holiday Season

I had no idea how good I had it.

My first 31 holiday seasons were blissfully simple. Sure, there was some drama here and there, because what’s a family without drama? But there was an abundance of everything: love, food, gifts. My parents were together, and we spent every holiday with extended family, too.

All of that changed three years ago when my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. We spent that Thanksgiving crying into our sweet potatoes as we all feared her road ahead, though she had a good prognosis at the time. We were all in total shock. I had no idea that would be the last Thanksgiving I’d spend with her.

The following year, we’d just learned that her cancer had returned after a brief remission. I remember going to my cousin’s alone for the holiday, while my mom laid sick on the couch. Larger than life, my mom was already missed that day, even though she was still alive. Last year, my angel of a best friend accompanied me home to spend the day with my dad and extended family. We toasted my mom with her favorite wine, a sickly sweet German Riesling, as we went around the table sharing our favorite memories of her, through big, hot tears. The music switched to Christmas music at the end of dinner, and with those first sparkling notes of the season came the profoundly deep, raw pain that was nearly as deep as her initial loss.

This will be my second Thanksgiving without her on this earth, the second Thanksgiving of the rest of my life. They say all the “firsts” are the hardest, and I hope they are right, whoever they are.

Here’s what I plan to do to get through, and some ideas for you if you’re in a similarly difficult situation:

  • Writing, writing, writing. My therapist (a writer herself) once told me: “Theodora, I think you’re going to write your way out of this.”

    She recommends writing letters to your lost loved one. Let me tell you, this has been nearly impossible for me to do without tears (waterproof mascara is your friend here). Part of that stinging of pain of loss is those severed lines of communication, and writing to them patches that, just a bit.

    This is probably the most cliche of them all, but cultivating a gratitude practice. Every day for the past few weeks, I’ve been writing down just five things I’m grateful for, large or small. In tough times, it really puts things into perspective and reminds me of what I do have–not what I don’t. What are you grateful for today? Hit reply, I’d genuinely love to hear.

    Today I’m grateful for: heat in my apartment, the resiliency I’ve built, being back in the same city as my favorite people in the world, taking the time to journal and meditate, and my hair. (Hey, it’s not always deep.)

    You don’t need a fancy notebook—hell, you can journal on the back of a receipt!—but a fancy notebook never hurts, right? My current favorite: these Denik layflat notebooks. Not only are they pretty, but the proceeds also go to a good cause, funding education projects around the world.
  • Yoga. Teaching and taking. I had no idea how fulfilling teaching could be. Yoga has helped me immensely as a coping mechanism, and it’s filling my heart sharing that with others.
  • Doing something that makes me happy. You don’t need to be a martyr! Unsurprisingly, I’ll be doing a workout to keep myself (somewhat?) sane.
  • Being careful with the booze. Oh man, I love me a glass of wine (or three) as much as the next person. But…alcohol is a depressant. You may already know this, but it’s worth repeating when you’re sad. More things I learned the hard way: if you’re on an antidepressant, alcohol makes it ineffective–thus, you’re doubly screwed. #thingslearnedwhilehospitalized
  • PROJECTS! I’m my mother’s daughter. The woman thought the answer to most things was some sort of project, which generally involved organizing. While I didn’t get that gene, I’m using the holidays to do my own type of projects: creative ones. I’m launching this newsletter, working on a podcast, working on my book proposal.

Reading

Grief Is a Change Agent (Modern Loss): I love this idea of turning your grief into a force for good. In a smaller way, this is what I hope to do through my writing, but I’m always thinking about other ways to use my experience to help others through this pain.

Pleasure Isn’t Happiness (Furthermore): Oh, this is TOO GOOD. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been guilty of chasing moments of pleasure en route to happiness, but this is a valuable reminder to not conflate pleasure with happiness.

The Next Chapter (Atelier Dore): This is about a breakup, but man—it applies to any situation. There’s one part that talks about being told congratulations for the breakup. After being laid off last year, I had drinks with a former leader of that company, and when I sat down, she said “Congratulations, Theodora—I’m so excited for what this means for your next chapter.” I could appreciate the sentiment at the time, but the sentiment is even deeper today.

If you’re also going through a potentially tough holiday season from grief, Claire Bidwell Smith’s newsletter is priceless—she’s doing a special series about coping during the holidays.

What about you? What are your challenges getting through the holidays?

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