I don’t know exactly when it started.
Was it when the coffee was brewing, or earlier?
Maybe when the basket holding my Dad’s letters fell behind his old wooden desk with the bookshelf on top—or when the email popped in my inbox that my final book draft was done.
I’m not always certain why it’s one of those days.
But that’s how it is with grief waves—you don’t see them coming.
The sadness seeps into every bone and then you realize, it’s back again.
Right after a loss, the first wave is overwhelming and it knocks you over. Subsequent crashes come quickly and with similar intensity. Then, in time, the size of the waves lessens, and the period between them expands. You might even forget they exist for a while, but then they are back.
Sometimes they can be expected, around holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries, but other times, they appear for no reason.
You just wake up and you are in one, sometimes waist-deep.
That day I sensed what was happening because I had this intense urge to visit the tree planted in a dear one’s honor. And when I selected my meme of the day, I picked one of a random church sanctuary. (I often wander into churches looking for some sign of my dad, who was a minister.)
I had no idea why I was in the grief funk, but my body urged me to honor it.
Luckily, my husband and dog understand. They see it in my eyes and feel the energy shift. One gives me a long grounding hug, the other (the dog) lays on my lap like an anxiety blanket. Both are effective in taking the edge off the longing, the loss.
With experience, I know what to do after acknowledging my feelings. I pull out my mental handbook of grief tools. Sometimes I only need one—other times it takes them all.
Here are eight things to do when holiday grief waves hit:
1. Honor them
After grabbing my trusty 20-ounce cup of Wawa French vanilla coffee, I drive over to a nearby park where a tree was planted in my loved one’s memory. I walk around it and talk as if he was still here. I tell him about the kids, and the surprise party we went to the night before. I notice there is a new tree in the grove, and send peaceful wishes to those that planted it.
2. Write or do something creative
My go-to is writing or working on my monthly newsletter. Both take my attention and ensure I’m doing something useful with the feelings. But other creative ideas include cooking, painting, or even wrapping presents. Whatever brings joy and creative distraction.
3. Try to refrain from anything destructive
I did not do so well at this. When I went to the grocery store for our weekly haul, I bought a large bag of kettle corn and later ate most of it in front of the TV. (Before becoming sober curious, I would have drunk a bottle of wine, so I give myself a small pass for the popcorn. But threw the rest of it away the next day.)
4. Declutter or re-arrange a room—or your life
After retrieving Dad’s letters (which required unloading the entire desk and bookcase), I rearranged my entire office, decluttered, and reoriented the desk so it looks outside so I can get as much sunlight as possible as the days grow shorter.
5. Lose yourself in something
Flipping through Netflix I found the movie “Red Notice.” It was the perfect combination of humor, action, and surprise to distract me.
6. Go to bed early
Sometimes, a good night’s sleep is all that’s required. On these days I make sure to eat dinner early (because big meals late can derail slumber) and take a long hot bath. Then, I crawl into bed with a lighthearted read and stay there for the duration.
7. Meditate or pray—early and often
It’s helpful to take a break from our thoughts by meditating or praying. Leaving the feelings with a higher power or the universe can be such a relief.
8. Believe in magic
Our loved ones are not gone forever. Their energy lives on and visits us from time to time. In the form of cardinals, or songs on the radio, or unexpected calls or texts from our loved ones just when we need them.
The love we have for those we’ve lost outlives the physical form. It is stronger and tougher than anything.
It never dies. We just need to believe in it, and them.
I hope you do—and that these tools help you in the holiday days (and other days) ahead.
If you have more grief tools, please share them. May they benefit us all.
“Your body is away from me but there is a window open from my heart to yours. From this window, like the moon, I keep sending news secretly.” ~Rumi