Five years ago, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I had to say good bye to my precious little Buckley. Even though I still miss her every day, after five years, the sadness is tempered by appreciation and gratitude for the amazing changes she has brought to my life, and, through her book, to the lives of so many others.
I had never lost a cat during the holidays, and that first holiday season without her was very difficult for me. I love the holidays, and my cats have always been an integral part of the celebrations. The year Buckley died, all I wanted to do was hole up in my house, and pretend that the holiday season wasn’t happening all around me. Thankfully, I had put up my Christmas tree the day before she died. I already knew then that she wouldn’t be with me at Christmas that year, and I needed to see her with the tree one last time. Otherwise, there probably wouldn’t have been a tree that year.
Even if your cat didn’t die around the holidays, the first holiday season without a beloved pet is always difficult. The holidays are stressful at the best of times. Add in the stress of grieving a loss, or even just the sadness of missing a beloved family member, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Even though it may seem impossible, the holidays can also be a time of healing, even in the middle of grieving. It is possible to feel grief and joy at the same time if you allow yourself to open your heart and experience the fullness of life. Perhaps the following suggestions can help you navigate the holiday season with a little less pain, and a little more joy.
Accept the sadness
It’s unrealistic to expect that you’re going to be happy all the time. Sadness is a natural consequence of lost love. Grief can deepen your ability to love if you let it. There is no way to get through grief except to let yourself feel it. Leaning into your grief will actually allow it to pass more quickly than avoiding it.
Make new traditions
Holiday traditions are important, but they can also make things more difficult if the lost loved one was an important part of those traditions. This may be the time to make new traditions. Reach out to new people, celebrate the holidays in a different location, or even just change where you’re going to place the Christmas tree this year. Be creative, and do what feels right for you.
Don’t be a perfectionist
If the thought of going all out for the holidays is too overwhelming, work on letting go. Rather than turning every holiday moment into a Norman Rockwell painting, try to do only the things that are truly meaningful for you. The world will not come to an end if you don’t send out Christmas cards this year, or if you don’t make your special cookies.
Incorporate the lost pet into the holidays
Place a candle next to a photo of your pet in a special place in your home and light it during significant times during the holidays to symbolize the love you shared. Get a living Christmas tree and plant it in your yard in memory of your pet after the holidays. Hang photo frame ornaments with your pet’s picture on your tree. The year Buckley died, I put the box that held her ashes, along with a photo of her, under my Christmas tree. It made her part of the celebrations in a way that was meaningful to me.
Take care of yourself
Enjoy the special treats of the holiday season, but also remember to eat wholesome, healthy foods, and get at least some exercise each day. Allow yourself to say no to requests for social gatherings if you simply don’t feel up to it. If being out among holiday shoppers seems overwhelming to you this year, do your shopping online.
Give yourself permission to feel joy
Don’t deny yourself small moments of relief even while you’re grieving. Enjoy small pleasures, such as a delicious cookie, a beautiful piece of music, or the company of a friend. In those moments, you’re outside of your grief, and it’s okay. I remember going to a holiday concert three weeks after Buckley died. When the concert ended, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking about her for a full two hours. I immediately felt guilty, but it really was okay to allow myself that brief respite from grieving.
Accept that the first holiday season without a beloved family member will be difficult. However, if you find it impossible to function or think of the holidays as anything but an unbearable ordeal, you may be severely depressed, and you should seek help from a professional grief counselor.
What has helped you cope with grief during the holidays?