I’ve been writing about my experiences in Japan, where I lived for 10 years, and I was recalling some Japanese customs for celebrating the New Year. People send special New Year postcards that they mail in late December, but which are kept by the post office until January 1, when they are delivered early in the morning. However, if there has been a death in the family, the bereaved send out a little notice in early December asking that they not be sent any New Year cards and apologizing for not sending any out. At that point, the bereaved family is off the hook for a lot of things, having to do with the new year celebrations, and the people who receive the card can then send condolences or offer assistance to the family of the deceased. The card is called mochu hagaki. Mochu means mourning period and hagaki means postcard. While there doesn’t seem to be any prescribed mourning period in Japan, they do have a 1-year anniversary of the deceased’s death.
It would be nice if we had a more formal structure for mourning here in the United States. A friend of mine lost her mother back in October, and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays have been hard for her. New Year’s will be hard, as well, although probably not as tough as Christmas. I know she wishes she could just skip the whole holiday thing, but she’s being brave, partially because she has a new grandson and she is celebrating for the grandson and his parents.
Those of us who don’t bother to read the obituary page seem to be the last to know about a death. These days, people can and do make announcements on Facebook and other social media, but, but not everyone is on Facebook. It’s embarrassing to meet someone you haven’t seen for a while but whom you still consider to be a friend, and ask about the family, only to be told that one of the family members has died. Awkward for the one who has to keep talking about a subject that he or she might rather put behind them, and awkward for the one who has asked the insensitive question.
In cultures where there is a formal mourning period, there are certain signs that tell you someone is bereaved, and those who have lost someone can opt out of the whole holiday scene if they wish to, with no questions asked. Since we have nothing like that to depend upon, we have to muddle through the best that we can.
I have also realized that in many ways, those who are bereaved and those who are facing a serious, possibly terminal illness, go though some of the same things, especially at holiday time. Here are some suggestions to get through the holidays.
1. It’s OK to opt out. If you are grieving or if you’re sick, it’s OK if you don’t feel like celebrating. Even if you prefer to be with other people rather than being alone, that doesn’t mean you have to attend every event. If you’re a friend of the bereaved or someone who is sick or a caregiver, go easy on them. Allow them to join in the festivities if they wish, and let them off the hook when they would prefer not to come.
2. Express your feelings. It’s OK to be sad. When there’s been a death, sights, smells and sounds will remind you endlessly of the one who is no longer with you. If you have cancer or some other serious illness, you may no doubt be going through some periods of anger (why me?) or fear (what next?) Not everyone will be comfortable with your expressions of sadness or anger, and that’s OK, too. People are people. Find the people who will listen. Write in a journal or a blog. Find a good counselor if you need one. If you are a friend of the bereaved or to someone struggling with cancer, and if you are comfortable doing so, lend a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. If someone needs to rant, tell them you will listen without taking it personally. You don’t have to say anything. Just listen and offer love. Try not to make a bereaved person or one struggling with serious illness feel bad about expressing grief or anger. And if you are there to comfort someone, it’s OK if you cry, too.
3. Plan ahead. If you need time away during a holiday period, don’t be shy about making plans for this. If you are usually the one who hosts the family celebration, consider not doing it this year, or ask for some extra help. If there’s an annual event that you usually attend, but would rather not, make it clear that you won’t be there, but encourage others to attend if they wish. If you are a friend of the bereaved or one who is ill, ask if they would like to participate and allow them to beg off if they need to. Ask them if they’d like to do anything differently this year. Try not to make them feel guilty about not attending celebrations.
4. Scale back. Even if you plan to participate in holiday celebrations, know that if’s OK if you don’t do as much as you did last year. If there is an event that you usually lead or help organize, this may be a good time to allow someone else to step up to the plate. If you are a friend of the bereaved or the seriously ill, don’t expect the person to do as much as he or she usually does at holiday time. Ask what you can do to assist with holiday preparations.
5. Find a way to honor your loved one during the holiday. Do something special or start a new tradition to honor the loved one you have lost. Ask people to send you their best memories of the loved one. These can be collected and put into a coffee table book using an online self publishing service. If you are ill and not sure how many more holidays you will be able to celebrate, start a new tradition that can be carried on when you are gone. If you are a friend of the bereaved, you may wish to help him or her assemble photographs or written memories, or organize a time for people to remember the loved one, or you may wish to help a terminally ill friend start a new tradition or cross an item off his or her “bucket list.”
6. Do something different this year. The holidays will be different without your loved one. Honor this idea by planning to go somewhere new or do something you’ve never done before. This may even turn into a new family tradition. Or you may wish to get out of town this year and skip the whole local holiday scene altogether. Do what feels right. If you’re a friend of the bereaved or someone who is seriously ill, honor their choice to do things differently, and participate if you are asked and feel able to do so.
One thing that I have noticed is that people are not that good at offering consolation to a bereaved person or offering comfort to someone who is seriously ill. They sometimes say awkward things unintentionally. If you are bereaved, it’s often a good idea not to take what people say too personally. If they have said something insensitive, it is probably because they have not yet experienced bereavement, or it may be that they are just not very good at dealing with their own fears of death.
The fear of death keeps a lot of good people from offering condolences or comfort. I know that when I had cancer, there were people who avoided me, and others who couldn’t look me in the eye. Some of the people that I thought might be of help turned out to be unavailable when I needed them. They may have thought they were doing the right thing by not bothering me while I was sick, or maybe they just couldn’t face me because they couldn’t face their own fears. When I had cancer, I thought it was going to be all about me, but I was wrong. It was all about other people!
One thing that people did when I was sick was give me all kinds of advice that I didn’t necessarily ask for. Another thing that they did was tell “horror” stories about someone else with cancer. When I began to realize that these people were just trying to give me some useful information or show their support for me, I got better at answering them by simply saying, “Thank you. I appreciate your concern.” Once they were assured that I had recognized their love and concern, they were happy as clams. I was happier, too, because instead of fretting about the things they said, all I had to do was accept their love and care and thank them for it.
It was hard to realize that there were some friends who just couldn’t be there for me when I needed them the most, but I learned something from that, too. I learned that some people really just need to be asked, specifically, to do something. Others will offer specific things, such as bringing a home-cooked meal to your home or doing your grocery shopping for you. The trick is to take them up on what they offered or just thank them for their offer and let it go. I learned that when someone offers something specific, they are probably not prepared to do anything else, so it’s best not to ask them. And for the ones who could not help out, I simply sent them love, knowing that my situation may have served as a catalyst for them to do some deep thinking, and if not, everybody is in a different place with respect to confronting their fears of death. 🙂