Dear Carol: Last year was a tough one for my family. Dad had never recovered from a massive stroke that he suffered two years ago, and Mom, who’d been his caregiver, discovered shortly after his death that she had advanced breast cancer. They were both 79. Mom was peaceful with the fact that the cancer was too advanced for her to fight and said that she was ready to join Dad. We realize that since she was beyond treatment when she was diagnosed, she was showing a healthy attitude, but my sister and I are still feeling traumatized by the year. Our parents loved Christmas and spent weeks decorating and preparing, which is making this year extra hard. My sister said that the only reason that she’s going to celebrate at all is for her husband and kids. I’m single and have no children. I’m close to my family and have great friends, but I’d just like to skip this holiday. Should I make an effort for myself? I’m torn. — HP.
Dear HP: I’m so sorry for all that you’ve been through. You’ve lost both of your parents within a year, which is a lot to absorb.
Experiencing our parents' deaths is life-changing in that we are not only losing people we love, but we’re also losing the people who’ve anchored our lives. We suddenly become the “older generation,” which is a profound reorganization of our life order.
The holiday season, birthdays and anniversaries are nearly always difficult for people who have lost loved ones because of the way the day of celebration throws a spotlight on our empty chairs. This Christmas, these memories are extra vivid for you and your sister because of how involved in the season your parents were. It’s normal for both of you to pull back.
I'd like to stress, though, that while we all grieve differently, it can be easy to let that grief lead us into dark self-pity this time of year. You deserve time to feel that self-pity, but you might also consider doing a small amount of Christmas decorating as a memorial to your parents since they loved the season so much. Acknowledging the season in this way may even surprise you by bringing comfort.
Take time to work through your grief, but remember that this season is also about giving. Consider donating to a Christmas charity in your parents’ name or helping serve a community Christmas meal. No guilt allowed if you don’t follow through, though. You may not be up to it, and that’s fine.
Your whole family may benefit if you join your sister and her family for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Together, you could reminisce about your parents and the past as well as celebrate the children who represent the future.
Grief stays with us, HP, but the impact generally lightens over time. Celebrating the lives of those we’ve lost can help. If you continue to struggle, grief counseling may be a good idea.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.