“Happy” holidays? Let’s face it… the holidays can be the hardest time of the year by a longshot after you’ve lost someone dear to you. In a time where friends and family are meant to gather together, it’s all too easy to focus on the one face that’s missing from the picture.

To top it all off, we’re now nine months into a worldwide pandemic that seems set on keeping us apart from those we would usually spend quality time with right about now. Trust me when I say that I know this change in routine and extended isolation can make the pain of grief even more magnified than it already is at this time of year.

As if the winter holiday season isn’t difficult enough, it’s even more charged with emotion because November 18th is the anniversary of my oldest daughter Elizabeth’s (pictured above) passing. For those of you who don’t yet know her story, she passed away seven years ago after a lifelong battle with Mitochondrial Disease.

Elizabeth was my world—my firstborn child, an older sister to my beautiful daughter Caroline, a step-daughter to my husband Mark, and a true light to everyone who knew her. Losing her, though not totally surprising because of her illness, was nothing short of a tragedy for our family.

The last seven years have taught me so much… about my own strength, my unending love for my family, my passion for continuing Elizabeth’s legacy through my work with Special Needs Companies and Special Needs Law Group of Massachusetts. However, one of the most useful and important things Elizabeth’s passing taught me is how to grieve.

Now, I am by no means an expert, and I’m not positioned to offer any clinical advice, but I can speak from my own experience and from the stories of families in my practice who have experienced a loss like mine.

While everyone’s holiday experience is different, especially during COVID-19, here are 5 tips that I and others have found helpful as we grieve during this time of year.

Continuing Their Legacy Through Stories
Let’s start with my personal favorite. I will never get tired of sharing my favorite stories of Elizabeth’s life of laughter and joy. One of the best is when Elizabeth laughed so hard that the sweet potatoes came flying out of her mouth and then our dog ate them off the floor! This sweet flashback always guarantees a smile on my family’s faces, which is the goal of the holiday season, right?

If you aren’t sure where to start, try pulling out home videos and photo albums. If your extended family is gathering this year, whether virtually in person, these materials will help them enormously in both supporting you and sharing your joys and sorrows.

For me, I often fear that people are going to forget about Elizabeth and the world is going to move on without her. These stories, photos, and videos help preserve who she was.

Make Their Favorite Holiday Dish
I know I’m not the only foodie here. For many people, food is the centerpiece for special times with friends and family. In short, food is a form of love.

In our family, I still serve some of Elizabeth’s favorite things on certain holidays. Christmas breakfast has pancakes, and Easter will definitely have a ham. This tradition also includes eating popcorn, pizza, potato chips, and onion dip while watching our favorite holiday movies like “Christmas Vacation” and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”

Keeping these traditions will be especially helpful as we figure out how to celebrate in the midst of COVID-19.

Decorate Your Home with Memories
First and foremost, I want to thank every teacher, aide, and nurse who helped Elizabeth make Christmas ornaments, stockings, Thanksgiving poems, and more. Every year, I pull them out and go through them one by one before hanging them throughout the house. This is one of my favorite ways to keep her close to me and allow her to help me “deck the halls.”

Generosity: The Grieving Heart’s Antidote
Grief is tricky, and it can hit you at unexpected times. What helps me strengthen my heart and find joy is taking the focus off of my pain and finding ways to be generous. Getting up out of our own misery to help others can be just what we need to beat the holiday blues!

Sign up to serve a holiday meal, deliver presents or warm clothes at your church or temple, or sing holiday songs at a local nursing home. Find some way to give back to your local community through your time, money, or resources. It’s one of the most fulfilling things you can do, and these actions are a blessing for the people you’re helping and a blessing for you to know that you made someone else’s holiday brighter.

Prioritize Self Care
As hard and unnatural as it may be, especially for us moms, please be sure to take time for yourself! What do YOU need?

You may need time to be sad and grieve on your own, seek outside counsel, get extra sleep, try a new exercise, get back into your old routine, prioritize eating well or bring out the stretchy pants. Listen to what your mind, heart, and body are telling you.

To make this happen, you must practice the art of saying… wait for it… “no.”

Scary, right?

Let someone else cook dinner for 20 people! It can be stressful to do all of that work. Not only that, but the thought of seeing people for the first time all year who will undoubtedly ask how you are doing is enough to dread. I used to get anxious for weeks before the holidays about what people were going to say or ask, and then I would be sleepless for days cooking and cleaning to get everything ready so that they wouldn’t see me skip a beat.

It was a recipe for disaster! I was tired, sad, and on edge — toggling between being completely sad and withdrawn or blowing up at people. Not good!

There is no shame in ordering in or asking the family to help you. There is also no pressure to make your house spotless and perfect. What would make you feel more at peace this year? What would help take off the pressure? Do that.

As we all navigate this unprecedented holiday season and learn how to find healing, one thing that I want you to know is that you are not alone. I am grieving with you, my family is grieving with you, and so many others are processing those complex emotions that can make us feel isolated.

You are doing a great job. While the grief will never disappear completely, it will change with time, and you will find yourself smiling again. I hope these tips will help you find this sooner rather than later.

To you and yours from me and mine, many blessings!

Are you a parent, caregiver, sibling, or loved one of a person with special needs? Our "Circle of Care" Facebook group unites over 250 members of the Special Needs Community to share stories, provide support, ask questions, and hear exclusive information from our founder Annette Hines and other industry experts. During weekly Facebook Live sessions, hosts share helpful resources and practices for preparing your loved ones for life's uncertainty and navigating complex, necessary legal processes. Join the group for free here!

Author's Bio: 

Annette Hines is a founding partner of Special Needs Law Group, Podcast Host of Parenting Impossible - The Special Needs Survival Podcast, and the owner of Special Needs Companies (a one-stop-shop resource center for families of children and adults with disabilities).

Annette dedicated her life to helping the special needs community after her daughter Elizabeth passed away from Mitochondrial disease in November of 2013. Her journey with Elizabeth inspired her to write the book, Butterflies and Second Chances, and she is currently working on her second book. Annette was also recently asked to serve on NAELA's Federal Advocacy Committee. Her expertise has been featured in several publications, including The Wall Street Journal and SelfGrowth.com. She is also the former host of Legal Line on BNN-TV in Boston.