November. In the United States, that means Thanksgiving and the start of the festive juggernaut that is the Christmas season. In my family, it also means Oberon’s birthday (my son who died) and Hogmanay. In your family, it might mean Black Friday, Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, or New Year’s Eve.

There’s a lot going on. A lot.

Woman standing alone outside in the snow - Opting Out of Holidays

Shutterstock/Duet PandG

Some traditions may bring you much comfort in life after loss. Togetherness, rituals, and food (so much food) can be healing and even joyful. However, sometimes the holidays feel more like obligations. This can be especially hard to manage when grief is in the picture too.

Pretending I have some kind of authority for a minute – I’m letting you off the hook. You don’t have to do anything this holiday season that doesn’t feel right. You don’t have to attend every family function. You don’t have to give gifts. You don’t have to make home-cooked meals. You can just opt out this year if it’s feeling too heavy, or you can decide to opt-out moving forward indefinitely.

Things to consider when Opting Out…

  • Communicate your plan to opt-out, especially if it’s a long-standing expectation. It’s up to you if you’d like to explain why, but be clear so there is no confusion on the day of.
  • Acknowledge this is different, and may cause some hurt feelings. That said, you are likely opting out because of your own feelings – and everyone needs to be understanding.
  • Potentially suggest an alternative. Maybe something smaller than usual, or something at a different time of year.
  • Clarify what you can – and can’t – commit to. Perhaps you’re OK with attending a family function, but it’s too stressful to manage the food. Maybe you aren’t sure if you will or won’t feel up to it on the day of and want the host to know it’ll be a day-of decision.
  • Prioritize the things that matter most to you (including if what matters to others matters to you). Let the little things fall away, or defer them to next year.
  • Ask for help! Not feeling the magic, but there are older children in your family that still believe in Santa? Ask family or friends to help you shop / wrap / whatever.

Early in the time after Oberon died, I got some very good advice at a peer support group. When it comes to big events and holidays, have a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A could be “go to Grandma’s for a family celebration” and Plan B could be “watch movies with my spouse all day.” Just having that Plan B – and making sure hosts know you are a “maybe,” can really take the pressure off.

There are some traditions that I love doing. I’m also at a point where creating traditions and memories with my living kids is a high priority.

At the same time, I know that if I pile too much on the holiday to-do list, I will spiral. I need to make time to remember and honor Oberon on his birthday. I need to keep space in my head and heart for the tough conversations that will come up when my kindergartner and preschooler ask questions about their brother and death in general. And yes, I need help. My partner is my main help and support, but he doesn’t always know what I need. Time to make a list and talk through what the holidays are going to look like for our family this year.

Be gentle with yourselves.

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