Losing a friend or family member to addiction is like a layer cake of pain. There’s the usual grief experience as the base, of course—but then on top, there’s layer after layer of complicated feelings about the exact way in which your loved one died. There’s the shock and the self-blame. The anger and frustration. The shame and the fear of judgment.
Sounds delicious, right?
This layer cake is particularly unappetizing during the holiday season, when all you really want is to chow down on some figgy pudding like everybody else. During the holidays, it can feel like you’re surrounded by perfect, happy families drinking cocoa and playing touch football and making snow angels. And when you’re hurting, all that in-your-face cheer is enough to turn anybody into a Grinch.
I lost my little brother to an overdose in 2015. In the years since, I’ve learned that losing a loved one never stops hurting. The feelings change and evolve, but the pain is always there. No matter how long it’s been since your loss, there’s no doubt that the holiday season is especially hard. But there are ways to get through it—and even enjoy parts of it. Just remember a few key things.
During this season of mass merriment, grief can be especially disorienting. “Why don’t I feel all merry and bright?” you may find yourself wondering. “Why don’t I want to celebrate and spread good cheer? What are all these people so happy about, anyways?”
Be nice to yourself when you feel this way. Remember that it’s okay to not feel particularly festive. It’s okay to be sad, angry, or even resentful. Be aware of how you feel, and remember that it won’t last forever. Take the time you need to sit with those unpleasant thoughts and then move through them, rather than letting them suck you down. By respecting these not-so-great feelings, rather than attempting to silence or ignore them, you’ll also prevent yourself from lashing out or saying things you may regret later.
Don’t choke down bad feelings like so many chunks of overcooked turkey. Don’t try to power through your sadness for the sake of the family gift swap. You may think you’re sparing people drama, but in reality, you’ll just feel worse in the long run.
I understand the impulse to just grin and bear it. No one wants to be a downer, especially around the holidays. But remember: Your feelings matter, and they’re important to your loved ones. No one would want you to suffer in silence. So if you’re having a hard time, raise your hand. Reach out to people you love and trust. Tell them how you’re feeling, and you may be surprised by the love and support you receive in return.
The reality is, it’ll all probably hit you at some point. Even if you think you’re fine, and over it, and feeling great—be prepared for some unexpected Emotions with a capital E.
Maybe you’ll sit down at the dinner table and be reminded of how your mom always folded the napkins into little birds every year, and now she’s not here to. Maybe you’ll think of how your best friend always used to be grossed out by the cranberry sauce. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about grief, it’s that little memories like that have the power to fly into your head and overwhelm you in an instant.
So it’s best to be prepared. Put a plan in place ahead of time that will help you later, in moments when everything starts to feel like too much. Think about what you’ll say to excuse yourself, and where you’ll go to calm down. If you’ll want someone to come with you, give them a heads up, too. Think of it as your emotional game plan. And the pros always stick to the game plan.
People are awkward about death. We just are. If the people around you at family holiday gatherings aren’t talking about your loved one or your loss, it’s probably not because they’re being callous. It’s probably just because they feel awkward about it, and they don’t want to upset you or others.
But if you want to talk about the person you’ve lost, you can and should (just try to focus on the happy memories, in order to avoid upsetting others or even triggering a fight.) Share a memory from childhood holidays. Talk about their laugh, their smile, their favorite ugly Doc Martens. Once you set the tone and let everyone know that it’s okay to reminisce and share, others will follow your lead.
For many of us, the hard truth is that this season just plain sucks. But it does get easier, once you learn how to cope with it. And it can even start to feel like a joyful occasion again, if you try to include the person you miss so much in everyone’s hearts and minds.
Jess Keefe is Shatterproof's Senior Editor.