If you're facing this holiday season with an aching heart because of a divorce or death in your family, a spokeswoman for the Compassionate Friends Inc., a self-help organization for parents who have lost a child that has 500 local chapters across the country, has this advice for you:
"If you have lost a loved one, these coming weeks can be the loneliest, most excruciating time you'll ever know, the worst grieving time you'll ever go through," says the Bangor, Maine, chapter president of Compassionate Friends.
"You may not feel as if you can live through these coming weeks, but you will make it if you give yourself permission just to grieve -- as much as you want, as long as you want, whenever you need to.
"Begin early to plan your coping strategies, and be selective about how you plan to celebrate. Examine carefully the events and tasks of each tradition," she adds.
"Then ask yourself these questions: Do I really enjoy doing this? Am I doing this out of habit, free choice or obligation? Is this a task that can be shared? Would this holiday be the same without this part of the celebration?
"Decide what you can handle comfortably -- and be specific! Are you open to hearing talk about the loved one you have lost or not? Do you feel able to send holiday cards this year or not? Can you handle the responsibility of a family dinner, holiday parties, etc., or do you want someone else to handle these functions?
"Also ask yourself whether you want to stay home for the holidays, or if you need to choose a different environment," says this woman, who lost her son several years ago.
She adds, "If you have children, it's especially important during this supposedly happy, happy time of the year to say to them, 'It's OK for you to cry, and it's OK for me to cry, too. You and I feel very sad now, although we won't always.'
"Be a good example to them by not being a good little soldier, by crying and talking and grieving openly and unashamedly. In doing so, you'll be giving your children a most important gift.
"Also, don't be afraid to make changes in the way you spend these first terribly painful holidays. Doing so really can make things less painful, so consider letting your children take over FTC decorating the tree, if you always did it. Or open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. Or have your big meal at a different time of day.
"And don't be afraid to have fun. Laughter and pleasure are not experiences in which you abandon your loved one or your grief over a family tragedy."
Be gentle and understanding of yourself. Don't set a rigid agenda ("I should be doing such-and-such") or beat yourself up with artificial deadlines ("It's been four years -- I should be over this!").
Don't question or deny any of your feelings, and don't expect them to be consistent, either, say veterans of this kind of grief. While there are predictable stages in the grieving process after a death or divorce (shock, denial, bargaining, anger, grief, acceptance and healing), we do not proceed from one to the next in an orderly fashion.
What's important to remember is that your feelings aren't good or bad, sane or crazy, appropriate or inappropriate. They simply are.
You will smile again one day, and sing carols, and wish people a happy Christmas or Hanukkah. You'll realize that while the pain of your loss never disappears completely, it has at least become bearable.
In the meantime, give yourself permission to grieve your way during this most painful time of the year.
If you have experienced the death of a child of any age from any cause and want more information about the Compassionate Friends Inc., call (708) 990-0010 or send $1 and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: P.O. Box 3696, Oak Brook, Ill. 60522-3696.