Animated illustration of woman eating gingerbread in holiday sweater as festive decorations twinkle behind

Illustrations By Vesna Asanovic

The holidays can be triggering. Here’s how to cope

How to survive the holidays if you’re grieving

Before adopting my daughter, I’d fantasized for a long time about our perfect first Christmas. There’d be a new puppy tearing around the living room, gift mountains, holiday movie marathons, a magnificent tree and happy faces. And last Christmas, after I was matched with a teen girl, my vision was finally manifested. Sort of. We brought home an adorable little yellow lab the week before the holidays, we stacked the sofa so high with presents that we almost broke Instagram, we bookmarked a bunch of festive films on Netflix, and decked a bushy tree out with twinkling fairy lights. All that was missing from our holidays? The joy.

Okay, there was enthusiastic squealing and Snapchatting as we unwrapped our gifts on Christmas morning, but after that my daughter fell quiet. By Boxing Day, she was retreating to her bedroom, refusing to join me on the sofa for so much as the sing-along scene from Elf. “These movies remind me of my foster family,” she said. “I miss them so much right now, and I don’t feel like doing anything I used to do with them.”

For the next week, any moment of festive fun was quickly followed by tears or door-slamming that seemed to come out of nowhere. I felt frazzled. Symbolically, around the time we both began to unravel, our tree started tipping over, no matter how tight I secured it into its base. Two or three times a day I’d find it slumped against the wall with shattered baubles at its feet. “Current mood,” I’d mutter. We ended up cancelling our New Year’s Eve plans, ordering pizza and going to bed by ten. The only countdown we cared about was how many days till we could get our tinsel-free life back.

Illustration of gold and blue christmas decorations on green background

For my girl, gaining a mom through adoption had meant saying goodbye to former caregivers. In fact, over the course of 14 Christmases, she’d been with five different families, and the sights, sounds and smells of the season brought it all flooding back. In fantasizing about our perfect first Christmas together, I’d failed to factor in the impact of all that loss.

The holidays are triggering for anyone touched by grief, particularly the first year after a major loss, whether through adoption, separation or divorce, or the death of a loved one. It’s a landmark time that has us thinking about where we were and who we were with in past years. There’s so much pressure to shoot for joy over the holidays, but when people are grieving, the highest goal should really just be comfort. These tips will help you and your loved ones navigate this challenging time.

Make peace with mixed emotions

Zaria Duncan, the manager of Families in Transition at Family Service Toronto, an agency funded by United Way, recommends letting it be OK to show a broader range of emotions. “For example, the first year after a divorce, you normalize sadness, regret, frustration, confusion and guilt,” says Duncan. “Accepting those feelings, being compassionate with yourself and staying emotionally connected with your kids is so important.”

Don’t overcommit

“Some people try and keep busy to distract themselves, but in the end, they crash,” says Sharron Spencer, the grief and bereavement coordinator at Hospice Georgina, an agency funded by United Way in Sutton, Ont. “Loss can make people numb, overwhelmed and unable to function at full capacity, so it’s important to factor in quiet time.”

Keep routines

Julie Despaties, founder of Adopt4Life: The Ontario Adoptive Parents’ Association, says even though kids dealing with loss might look forward to parties and gifts, when the time comes they might feel emotional overload. “Keep the celebrations small and provide as much predictability as possible,” says Despaties. Routines can save the season for grieving adults too: “They help you heal,” says Spencer, “because you’ll know what to do with yourself, even if you’re short on sleep or hit by a wave of grief.”

Create new traditions

When important people leave our lives, it can help to channel our thoughts and feelings into special rituals. Despaties says some adoptive families light candles to honour absent birth parents and former caregivers, or have their kids make wishes that the year will bring good things into those people’s lives. Spencer recommends simple activities like hanging a special ornament on the tree, making a toast or including your loved one’s favourite food in the holiday meal.

Illustration of a portrait recipes and a tablet on a green background

And reinvent the old ones

“If your late grandmother always did the holiday baking, create a day where family and friends all get together—so you’re not alone with your grief—and you bake as a team, using Grandma’s recipes,” says Spencer. “Also, tell stories to keep her memory alive, because that’s how we maintain connections to people we’ve lost.” In the first year after a separation or divorce, some parents get stuck in thinking an old tradition has to stay the same, but there are always ways to adapt it. “You might have parents who used to put up the tree every Christmas Eve with the kids. As single parents, they need to be flexible and do it in their new homes, on a date when they have access.”

Accept help

When you’re grieving, people often want to help, but they don’t know what you need. “If you just lost your spouse and gift shopping for your grandchildren seems overwhelming, it’s okay to ask someone else to do it,” says Spencer.

Spend time with people

“Volunteering at—or participating in—a community dinner, can break the isolation,” says Spencer. And if your support system is geographically distant, there’s always video chat. “I knew one newly separated dad whose relatives Facetimed him throughout the entire day on Christmas Day,” says Duncan. “They opened gifts together and did family rituals together, even though they were in different countries.” This can also work well for adopted children who maintain openness with former caregivers.

Have an exit plan

Company is good, but allow yourself to leave any event when it feels right to you. Spencer says, “Tune into emotional clues, such as feeling teary, or set yourself a time limit—I’ll stay one hour, and then I’ll leave and sleep.” This advice applies to kids too. “Give your child a hand signal or signal word to use, so they can take time out from larger gatherings with a parent,” recommends Despaties.

Enlist professional support

“If you’re experiencing hopelessness, depression that won’t shift, or suicidal thoughts, access professional services,” says Duncan. Check out low-cost counselling services like Toronto’s Hard Feelings or Tangerine Walk-In Counselling, which has locations in Mississauga and Brampton. Or, ask your family doctor about free or low-cost counselling close to home. (One of those services may be your family doctor—some physicians practice psychotherapy, too.)

Acknowledge the blessings

People dealing with bereavement are often touched by how their community pulls together to support them. Divorcees can feel relief no longer having to do things a certain way, because of difficult in-laws. And parents helping newly adopted kids process grief over the holidays can strengthen attachment by listening and being there for them. “What’s important is to be able to celebrate the moments of happiness and small victories happening every day over the holidays,” says Despaties, “so in time you can all look back and remember those fondly.”

Consider doing something radically different

Some grieving people skip the triggers of the holidays altogether and use the time to travel. Another possibility: muddle through the holidays in a low-key way, but plan another time for togetherness that’s a blank slate for you and your loved ones. “Christmases past are imprinted in my kids’ memories, and they’re always going to represent a loss,” says Despaties. However, her family comes into its own on a summer diving trip each year—their unique tradition that’s (metaphorically) baggage-free.

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