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The First Thanksgiving and Holiday Season After a Suicide

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In preparation for Thanksgiving and the holidays, I wanted to give folks some wisdom and insight into taking care of themselves during what can be a difficult time. I wanted to share a bit as it pertains to grief and the holidays.

Below is an excerpt from the book “The Gift of Second: Healing from the Impact of Suicide.”

One of the most difficult aspects of the first year is what is often referred to as the Year of Firsts. The Year of Firsts is all of the first times we experience an event, holiday, or tradition without our loved one. This includes birthdays, holidays, vacations, events, seasons, or any other life event we are now navigating without them. Survivors often talk about the difficulty of the first Thanksgiving or Christmas after the suicide and how to handle the typical traditions and expectations from others. Oftentimes, we have traditions we have always participated in, whether it be decorating in a certain manner, cutting down our own Christmas tree, or hosting a celebration. Maybe these were our loved one’s ideas originally, or maybe they simply loved participating in them. Whatever the case may be, it can sometimes produce dread as the season approaches.

This is a good time to evaluate if you want to continue with the traditions. You might need to look at them this year and ask yourself, “Do I really want to continue with these?” You might think, “We have to do it because my loved one adored participating in it” or “We always do that tradition. We can’t skip it this year.” This might be a good time, though, to look at those traditions and honestly assess if you have the desire, energy, and ability to continue with them. If you decide you do not, then it is important to give yourself permission to skip them.

This might also be a great time to create new traditions. These do not have to be permanent, they may only be temporary for the first year or two. I remember always celebrating Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family, but after she died, my dad, brother, and I decided it would be too painful to attend the celebration. We decided to go out to a nice dinner and then a movie together instead. We did this for only the first two years, but it was what we needed during such a difficult time that would have otherwise been a constant reminder of my mom’s absence. It did not make the season pain free; instead, it simply gave us an opportunity to choose how we wanted to spend those difficult days and lessen the pain just a bit.

The Year of Firsts might also involve how to navigate annual vacations or trips that have always been a family favorite. It is okay to continue with this trip if it is something you feel would be enjoyable and will find pleasure in. If, however, it is something you are dreading, it is okay to cancel the trip or perhaps change the destination. The important thing to remember during the Year of Firsts is that it is okay to say no to celebrations and change or cancel plans entirely. You need to do what you are comfortable with and what you can manage emotionally and physically. We don’t want to just endure events for the sake of keeping with tradition. We want to take care of ourselves the best way possible.

Often, society tells us we should be done mourning by the first anniversary of our loved one’s death. Sometimes we believe this ourselves. The truth is it is not realistic to expect our grieving to be complete and wrapped up nicely simply because we turned the twelfth page on the calendar. We do a disservice to ourselves when we believe everything will be easier once we make it through the first year and then later beat ourselves up when we recognize life is still hard. It is important to note the anniversary is merely one day; it is not the culmination of grief. There is no absolute timeline when we can expect to be “over” this incredible loss. To expect the first year anniversary to be the magic day when mourning and pain disappears is unfair to ourselves.

Unfortunately, many survivors share their second year was actually harder than the first. I mention this not to be discouraging but to give you insight instead. I remember walking around in a constant state of shock the entire first year and then slowly recognizing the finality of her death. It was then, in the second year, that life became less about “firsts” and more about the new reality of life without my mom. Also, I think people expect us to have moved on by the completion of the first year and, thus, they stop asking us how we are doing, stop seeing how they can help, and stop thinking about our pain. It felt a bit lonelier beginning that second year. This is not to scare you but rather to normalize it so you do not have false expectations but a more realistic understanding instead. This is normal to experience.

The Gift of Second: Healing from the Impact of Suicide is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock photo by phongphan5922

Originally published: November 22, 2016
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