Holiday Survival Guide: 6 Tips For Dealing With The Holidays When You’ve Lost A Loved One

The holidays suck extra hard when you’re trying to cope with the loss of a family member, even if you’re not a Grinch by nature. However you define your family, once someone that was an integral part of your warm and fuzzy celebrations is missing, winter brings a feeling of doom and gloom that all the vitamin D in the world can’t fix.

Even though I’m Jewish, Christmas was a fun holiday in our house that was all about being silly and festive and eating a lot and exchanging gifts. I really did believe in Santa, even though I’ve never believed in Jesus. We celebrated Chanukkah too, but it never gave me the same glow-y excitement in my belly that Christmas Eve did. I actually left Christmas cookies and milk for Santa one year, and my dad wrote me a thank you note using his other hand so I wouldn’t suspect his handwriting. For the most part, it was the three of us doing our thing. Now it’s just me and my mom in what often feels like a struggle against the world.

I lost my dad — wait, no. That sounds like I misplaced him. My dad died in 2003 from cancer at the age of 75. He probably had it for a long time before that; I used to look at the photo of us at my college graduation in ’99 and wonder if, even then, his body was already hard at work betraying him. I hate the euphemism that he “got” sick; he was sick for a really long time, and we didn’t know it, and by the time they found it, they had to try all sorts of whizbang stuff on him to make slow it down. They even tried cryotherapy on the tumor that had taken up residence in his liver, which sounds super futuristic and worked for a while but not long enough. Side effects of the other treatments at one time or another included nausea, digestive problems, pustules on his face, eyesight deterioration, sensitivity to cold drinks, and death.

My mom was told she was in remission the same week my dad was diagnosed with metastasized cancer, so no one was in any shape to lug the flocked Christmas tree down from the attic and decorate it one last time in our old house. We never had a tree in their new house, and I don’t think we talked about why. There were too many reminders of old Christmases, and of course, even with a feminist-y working mama, Dad was the one who was in charge of things like Christmas trees and killing bugs.

This is our 8th Christmas without him. (I had to call my mom and check. I have blocked a lot of this stuff out so time is squished together and flattened apart, and she said however I remember it is the truth, so I guess there’s some poetic license in here.) Yesterday would have been their 41st anniversary. This is how I cope with the loss of my dad over the holidays. Maybe it can help you cope, too. Or maybe you can suggest your own tips in the comments — we’re all in this together. Also, while I refer to Christmas and my dad, I’m really referring to whatever winter holiday you choose to celebrate and whatever person you are missing.

1. Make new rituals. This doesn’t mean going to the cemetery, although if that is something you want to do, go for it. Or don’t make any rituals at all. But don’t do what you did every year because there will just be a giant effing hole at the dinner table, and your loved one is probably not going to make like Elijah and appear at the dinner table. Probably. Mom and I go eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve along with every other Jew in town, and we cook something delicious Christmas day (by we, I mean her). We don’t sit at the grand old dinner table we used to share, though. We chill out in the breakfast nook. Just being in a different space helps, although we have talked of relocating altogether and spending Yule in Vegas.

2. Distract yourself. Christmas is an ace time to binge on movies, although it can be dicey because this is the time of year when studios release their faux feel-good movies and/or Oscar bait. All those damn heart-tuggers about buying zoos and horses in war and cute children with dads who died in 9/11, or despondent sex addicts, sociopathic sons, and cross-dressing lesbian butlers. Be suspicious of what media you consume if you’re trying to avoid crying; as someone who writes about movies 98.99 percent of the time, I rarely watch or trust trailers because I like going in fresh and because I think they can misrepresent the movie. Research beforehand if you’re worried; better to catch a few spoilers than happen upon a cancer subplot. That said, if you’re looking for a cathartic cry, you’re in luck! I can give you a whole list of depressing movies to check out. If there’s a show you’ve always wanted to catch up on, this is also a great time. There are seven seasons of Buffy with your name on them.

3. Treat. Yo. Self. Yes, I had to go there. If you’re lucky enough to have access to gift certificates or funds for a massage or other spa service, do it. The healing power of human touch can’t be underestimated, and if you’re not in a relationship, it’s emotionally dicey (if not downright unwise) to get down with someone just for a little creature comfort, especially if your wounds are still fresh. However, if you can spring for it, a painful Swedish massage can help; plus, it’s totally normal to cry while someone squeezes your muscles like dough. If you can’t afford it, DIY. A hot bath full of Epsom salts is cheap as hell, and a little lavender oil in the water can do wonders. Straight essential oils can be bad news for sensitive skin, but sometimes I put it on my wrists, temples, and, yes, just inside my nostrils to relax. You can even steep some bags of chamomile tea in there with you. A heating pad is your friend, and back massagers really do massage backs.

4. Stomp it out. Turn on your angriest music and scream along like a banshee with your ass on fire. Fling yourself around the room, wake the neighbors with the sound of your boots rattling the floorboards, slither around like a snake, throw an old-fashioned tantrum on the floor, do sun salutations until you fall over — do whatever you want. No one is looking. The thing is just to let out all the extra energy running around in your brain and body. Other helpful activities include running, drawing (crayons and construction paper work just fine), journaling, or finding an isolated place to yell. You think I’m kidding? Don’t forget to drink a lot of water afterwards, too. You’ll need it after all that sweating.

5. Meditate. Listen to chants on YouTube or your musical gadget of choice while you zone out, download guided meditations (I like Sharon Salzberg), or try some breathing exercises like this freebie from iTunes. (Note: some types of breathing exercises can trigger anxiety for some people, so proceed with caution.) I also like this program called Altered States. Not to be confused with the Ken Russell film from 1980, Altered States uses ambient noises mixed with different tones to stimulate your brain in different ways. Perhaps it’s a little woo woo, but hey, it works for me.

6. Better living through chemistry. I’m writing this with trepidation, but I also believe that in some cases, a toke, a drink, or a chill pill is an acceptable way to get through a rough patch. There are healthier, better ways to cope, but sometimes you just need to get through a tumultuous dinner with your family or fall asleep. Don’t be a douche and get effed up and drive, or, for that matter, cry/throw things/make a scene/be awful. Don’t hurt yourself or others. Obviously, if you or people around you have a history of addiction, please, please, please stay sober and ignore me. But if you want to go smoke a joint with your cousin in the backyard while everyone is inside looking all cheery and stuff, I won’t judge you.