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Surviving the holidays after a tragic loss

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was nine months out from her daughter’s overdose death by heroin, and the holidays were hurtling toward her too fast and way too soon.

“I don’t want to sound selfish,” she posted on a Facebook support group page. “But I lost my daughter Feb. 16, 2017, and the holidays are around the corner. My heart is not into decorating for Christmas. Should I push myself into decorating for the kids here at home?”

The responses were as varied as snowflakes.

“I felt it was important to carry on for the rest of my family,” one wrote. “If you follow your heart, your daughter will guide you.”

“After my son passed, I changed my decorating,” another wrote. “Rather than a huge tree, I put up a smaller tree. And I’ve bought an ornament that reminds me of him each year.”

Still another wrote: “I wish I could sleep until the holidays are over and done with. My family tells me I have to do everything for my other kids, but I just can’t.”

Dozens of folks responded. Focus more on the spiritual aspect of the season, they said. Put out a place setting in memory of the one no longer there, others said. Do something charitable. Do nothing at all.

One person put it this way: “If one more person tells me to smile or be happy, where is my holiday spirit, I am going to rip their head off. I don’t want to be nice. I don’t want to put up a tree or give thanks. I want to cry. I don’t have to be reminded I’m lucky for what I have. I know. But I am allowed to be sad and grieve what I’ve lost. It’s not bah humbug. I’m trying to survive the best I can.”

I have a feeling that sentiment is widely shared.

I wrote a response, too.

“I lost my son in March,” I began. “And while I look upon the upcoming holidays with a goodly amount of anguish, I know that we must go on. I know my son would want that. So, yes, maybe we do something different. But we do something. I have other children. We go on. For us. For him.”

I don’t know that I believed every word of that. But I wrote it anyway in the hopes that sending my words out into the universe could make them feel real.

I’ve met many of you on this journey through the dark night of the soul. Some of you have embarked on this trek in just the past few weeks.

For you, for me, these will be the first holidays spent without that someone who meant everything. A son, a daughter, a parent, a spouse.

We reflect on Thanksgivings past and wonder how it will be with an empty chair at our table.

I make my Christmas list and contemplate gifts in stores and catalogs that would be perfect for Devin, my 23-year-old son who died in the spring, and it crushes me to think that nothing is perfect, that he is no longer on the list.

Some of you have already been through several holidays. You assure us that things get better, if better means different, manageable. My colleague Ryan Boetel reported on a candlelight vigil Monday at Civic Plaza that honored homicide victims. Among those in attendance was Nicole Chavez-Lucero, one of the vigil organizers, whose 17-year-old son Jaydon Chavez-Silver was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2015.

“I promise it will pass,” she told the crowd about what to say to those who wonder how we go on after the death of one so dear. “You’ll get to where you can say, ‘I’m OK.’ ”

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions from grief experts on how to cope with loss during the holidays:

⋄  Stuff your turkey, not your feelings. Share your thoughts and emotions with family, friends and those who are also grieving. Allow your children and other family members to do the same.

⋄  Share memories of holidays past. Your lost loved one lives on in those memories. They are gifts to you.

⋄  Change traditions, or add new ones. Acknowledge that life has changed and it’s OK for the holidays to change, too.

⋄  Just say no. You have the right not to attend every holiday function.

⋄  Be good to yourself. Rest. Cry. Emotions zap energy levels. Be prepared to expect less of yourself. Be prepared to ask others for help.

⋄  Know that you are not alone. Reach out to others through support groups, grief centers, church, friends and family or, like the woman who lost her daughter in February, through social media groups.

You might be amazed at how many of us are right alongside you, traveling through that dark night of the soul, trying to survive the best we can, reaching for the day we can say we’re OK and really mean it.

So we go on, and you will, too. For us. For them.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.