I’m feeling reflective this morning. It’s Thanksgiving, and today we stuff ourselves with delicious food and kick off the holiday season. For the first time in several years, I’m actually genuinely excited about this holiday season. I’m sure there will be some tricky moments along the way, but after navigating three Thanksgivings, Christmases, and New Years without Patrick, I feel mostly prepared to deal. And for that, I’m giving thanks.

For those of you who are dreading this holiday season, I want to try to offer some hope. After surviving three holiday seasons since our son’s death, I think we’re finally settling into our “new normal,” as they say. So many in my community have experienced loss in the last year–death of a loved one, loss of a job, illness, divorce, and other really tough situations.

The progression of our holiday seasons since Patrick’s death

Our first holiday season was probably the roughest, but we asked for what we needed and set some reasonable expectations. We survived it and even had some enjoyable moments.

Our second holiday season, we were pregnant with our daughter. My anxiety (my husband’s too) was very high, but we were cautiously optimistic. We didn’t travel, which helped by not adding to the anxiety. Even if it had been a year we were supposed to travel, we probably wouldn’t have since I didn’t want to be far from my doctors. We tried to keep things generally quiet and low-key. And we spent New Year’s Eve celebrating entering the third trimester and had our 28-week ultrasound and OB appointment.

Our third holiday season, we had a 9/10-month-old. We traveled for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, which was a lot. Stitch and I were dairy-free because of her allergy, so eating while traveling was a bit of a challenge, and I didn’t get to eat some of my favorite foods. Bless the restaurant where we had Thanksgiving and my sister-in-law’s extremely accommodating menu for making both meals as special as possible. We didn’t necessarily do very well at keeping our expectations in check around our daughter’s first Christmas, and I felt like Patrick got really lost in some of the celebration. But, we got through.

And here were are, our fourth holiday season, which almost seems impossible. I see my daughter’s expressions when she sees the lights and the sparkly decorations, and it stirs all this excitement in my heart. I still miss Patrick. I know there will be tough moments, no matter how much I prepare. Triggers will blindside me. But, I also know I will recover. And the light in my daughter’s eyes makes so many things worthwhile.

Through these three seasons, I’ve learned a bit about what works, and what doesn’t. Let me share a few tips that have helped us navigate those tough first holiday seasons.

1. Set reasonable expectations.

This one is so tough. So, let me break it down. Whatever you think you’ll be up to, knock that down four more levels. Set low, low, LOW expectations, especially that first year. Each year you can add a little more, but go slow. This year, I was afraid that my excitement would encourage me to set too-high expectations, so I took a two-week e-course, “All is Calm: Even Mom” to help keep that in check.

2. Ask for what you need.

The most effective thing I did that first year was send an email to my family, who we’d be with for Christmas, letting them know what we thought we’d need. I wrote what I expected the minefields to be, and I let them know what we’d be doing to remember Patrick. If you are surrounded by supportive people, they’ll be so grateful for this. It was emotional to write, and I’m sure it was emotional to read and process. But, sending that email out a month before Christmas helped set the framework for a manageable trip. It also assisted with #1 in helping set reasonable expectations. It also removed the
“elephant in the room.” People really do want to know how to help. So, tell them.

3. Protect your heart, and say no when you need to.

If you know something is going to be a trigger, and you don’t feel safe asking for what you need, it’s ok to say no. I’m giving you permission to say no. Surround yourself with love and support. Events, places, and people who can’t offer the love and support you need are OK to avoid, especially that first year. Do you need to escape on a getaway holiday? Do it. Do whatever you need to protect your heart.

4. Give yourself space.

Don’t overschedule your holiday season. Give yourself time and space to process the emotions that surface. Give yourself time to recover from the events you do attend. Give yourself a place to escape to for a nap or quiet time during big, all-day family events. Give space for the unexpected. Give yourself grace for needing all this space.

5. Make new traditions.

In order to find your new normal around the holidays, you need to create new traditions that incorporate your new realities. We buy a giraffe ornament for our Christmas tree each year. We do a children’s book drive in memory of our son and donate those books to the hospital where he was born. We write a letter to our son that we put in his stocking on Christmas morning. We’ve kept a few traditions we had before our loss, but some of them have changed a bit. Instead of going to see Christmas lights and get hot cocoa in Harvard Square, we go into Boston to see the big tree at Feneuil Hall. Change what you need to change. Keep what you need to keep.

Be kind to yourself for needing these things to survive the holiday season. No matter how much you prepare, you will still feel depleted. Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t let others beat you up either. Taking care of yourself and surviving the holiday season is your first priority.

Much love to you all as you navigate the next six weeks.