It is that time of the year again. Everywhere we turn we see holiday decorations and messages that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year”.  But for those who have recently lost a loved one, the holidays can feel more like an event to survive rather than enjoy. The holidays are largely about spending time with family, and when important family members are missing, it can be tough to face. We experience for the first time that the company, plans, and events that added so much joy to years past, now become punctuated with painful reminders of our loss. Holidays raise hard questions for grieving families. How do you cook a turkey when Mom is not there to perfect the recipe? How do you attend church without picking up Dad? How does a wife get through New Year’s Eve with no one to kiss at the stroke of midnight?

For many with dependent children and other obligations, pulling the covers over our heads until spring is not a realistic strategy. Having a plan and setting boundaries can help to get through this difficult, and not so joyful, time of year.  Everyone grieves in different ways, some need space and feel comfort in having time alone, while others need to be more social and get out to take their minds off of things.

In a year of first holidays “without”, it is important to focus on what is best for YOU, and not go through the motions of what you feel others want you to do. Say “NO” to the obligations you simply do not feel like doing this year.   If you just can’t bear to do a big family celebration, give some thought as to what you do feel like doing. If staying home in your quiet house feels like doom and gloom closing in, think ahead and reach out to those people who you feel most comfortable around. Perhaps you want to do something completely different this year –  take a trip, go the movies, be with a new group of people or ask someone else in the family or friend group to host the dinner.

During grief, it is too exhausting to pretend you are fine, and there is no reason to.  There will always be those people with the best of intentions that simply don’t “get” loss and want you to hurry back to happiness. When you’ve lost a member of your family, even the best of times can be painfully incomplete. Someone is missing. Even on typically joyful days and the happiest events can be tinged with sadness.

There are no magical answers to glide through these important memory entrenched days. But perhaps most important is to get a little selfish this year, learn to say no, and practice even the smallest acts of self-care each day. While you may be approaching the upcoming holidays with some dread, there are moments of joy that can be brought to your days.

The following are some tips to keep in mind as you approach your first holiday season without your loved one:

Set aside time to remember your loved one  You can choose to do this privately by writing in a journal or as a family by going around the table and sharing a favorite memory.

Say what you need – Maybe you will attend a gathering but only for an hour, or maybe you will not make cookies this year. Whatever it is, set your parameters and share it with family and friends.

Reconsider tradition – There is a sudden gap this holiday with the loss of a loved one, acknowledge that. Give thought on how to fill it. Blend some old traditions with some new ones – perhaps one that honors your lost loved one.

Take care of yourself – Eat healthy and get plenty of sleep. Think about what makes you feel replenished. It could be a walk, a call with a sibling or friend, reading a book or an indulging bath.  Make it a point to do these activities often.

Make room for grief and joy – You will genuinely smile and laugh again. Experience joy without guilt. Grieving people don’t feel a well of happiness, but know it is okay to have light moments of feeling happy.

While it is perfectly normal to  need some space and alone time during the grieving process, be mindful about isolating yourself too often or completely. Allow yourself time to grieve, but also set some expectations for yourself about events you will attend. And maybe reach out to someone in your family or friend group to tell them your plans. Ask them to nudge you if you change your mind, perhaps.

Be kind to yourself and give yourself time. There is no set schedule for how we move through grief. If you are feeling stuck, or simply think it would be helpful to have a safe environment to share your feelings and gain support as you move through the process, don’t be afraid to reach out to a local bereavement group or private therapist. Often a set of extra ears, or a sounding board that identifies with the feeling of loss this season can be a wonderful support.