The holiday season can be a difficult time for those who have been touched by suicide. For me, the holidays are a reminder of my own dad’s suicide. I will never forget the phone conversation I had with my dad the night before Thanksgiving, 2011. He wasn’t himself; something just wasn’t right. While a month would pass before his life ended, I often consider that night to be the turning point in his life. For a survivor of a suicide loss, the holidays can be a reminder of “the last time.” While I have a number of joyful memories, there is also that memory of my dad’s last Thanksgiving. I never expected it to be his last. In an effort to assist others who may be struggling with the upcoming holiday, I have put together a survival list. I hope that one or two will allow you to experience happiness next Thursday.
1. Tell your friends and family what you need. I have found this one to be the most difficult for survivors of a suicide loss. I think we expect people to do more than they are capable of. Unfortunately, suicide makes people uncomfortable. Nobody knows what to do or say, leaving the survivor feeling isolated or even worse, judged. We need to teach our loved ones how to act. How do we do this? By telling them what we need. “I need to talk about _____ today.” “I need to cry, and I don’t want you to try to make me feel better. Just listen.” “I need to take some time for myself.” I can’t emphasize this enough. TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU NEED. Trust me, it will be easier for them AND you will get what you need.
2. Be Selfish! Yes, seriously! We often try to do everything and be everything for those around us. When do we make time for ourselves? We need to take care of ourselves, first and foremost. Do what you need to do for yourself today. If you want to skip the holiday, skip the holiday. If you want to go visit your loved ones’ grave, go visit. Do what you need to do. Just remember survival tip #1, and communicate why you need to do what you are doing.
3. Start a new tradition or tweak the old ones. Holidays can be difficult for a number of reasons, but traditions can send us spiraling down to the depths of a black hole. Traditions remind us that our loved ones are no longer with us. Often we don’t want to continue with the tradition because ____ should be here. Traditions are for us, and our families. There is no rule that says you need to continue one. If past traditions make you sad, stop doing them, or change them. Just because your loved one isn’t here in physical form, doesn’t mean they can’t be a part of it. Or, start a new tradition. It is never to late to start a new tradition.
4. Incorporate your loved one into the day. As a society we have created this notion that relationships end when the person’s life ends. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Relationships don’t end; they just change. I have a friend who lost her father to suicide a few years back. She continues to incorporate her father into the day, but setting a place for him at the table. Since gravy was his favorite Thanksgiving “accessory,” they put a gravy bowl in front of his plate. While he isn’t there in physical form, he is there in spirit. Her friends and family spend time talking about her father, often laughing at all of the wonderful times they spent together. Were her friends and family comfortable with this? Not initially, but she followed survival tip #1 and told them that this is what she needed. Now, it has become a new tradition.
5. Find something to be thankful for. Truly, there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for. Maybe you are thankful that the sun is shining, or you woke up actually feeling refreshed. Maybe you are thankful that guests cancelled, or that someone offered to bring a dish. Finding something, no matter how small, to be thankful for can instantly change our mindset and our mood.
6. Start the day off right. This is different for everyone, but for me its all about music. If I want to change my mindset, I listen to music while I shower or get ready. There are certain songs that just put me in a good mood. Pray. Give yourself a pep talk. Talk to the person you lost (or yell at them!). Do whatever you need to do to start the day off right. We often wake up thinking, “this is going to be an awful day.” And guess what, it is. Not necessarily because of anything in particular, but because we went into the day with that mindset. Do anything and everything you can do to go into the day with a positive mindset. I promise it will help, and definitely will make survival tip #5 easier.
7. Don’t try to numb yourself. Yes, a glass of wine can help ease your nerves. But five, well that will make you feel even worse tomorrow. We often do whatever we can to numb ourselves on days like Thanksgiving. While it might get us through the day, it makes the next day, and even multiple days after even more difficult. Do yourself a favor and allow yourself to be present. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it tomorrow.
8. Don’t let others control your day. We give WAY too much power to those around us. Someone may say something incredibly rude or inconsiderate. It is not a personal attack on you, or the person you lost. They are just ignorant. I have wasted a tremendous amount of energy trying to change people. It is a battle that cannot be won. Save your energy for those that truly matter. Your great Aunt is who she is; let it go. Don’t let her comments, or any others control your day. I am not telling you to allow others to say what they please; I am just telling you to pick your battles. Some people just aren’t worth your breath. Accept that, and focus your time and energy on the ones that mean the most. And hey, maybe even be thankful for those few.
I wish you all a peaceful holiday. There are few who can say that they understand; unfortunately, I do. The day might not be easy, or maybe it will be easier than you thought. Either way, I hope my list of survival tips helps you find some enjoyment in the day. Be kind to yourself.