how to celebrate while grieving

I lost my mom about a month ago after a long illness. Before her March diagnosis, she enjoyed great health; a year ago we had no idea what 2017 would have in store for her, or for us.

I share this news to explain (and to apologize for) my absence these past months. But as I start into this first holiday season without her, I also share a new empathy with those who are preparing to celebrate while grieving.

Over the years I have worked with several brides and their families who were planning events while grieving the loss of a loved one. I could sense their conflicted feelings: is it appropriate to celebrate without Grandma? Would she want us to be laughing and enjoying ourselves right now? And how do I feel about letting myself feel joy while I’m still so sad? I always wanted to do more for them, but though I sympathized, I had little personal experience with grief. I understand better now.

If you are struggling with how to celebrate while grieving, I am right there with you. Here are some thoughts that are helping me to navigate this new world.

First things first: Don’t be afraid to say no.

Whether it’s a bridal shower, a holiday party, or another big event, you may consider canceling. Questions like how soon the event is scheduled, how much planning is left to be done, how difficult it would be to reschedule, how recent is your loss—all of these may factor in when deciding whether to continue planning or attending a celebration.

It may feel like it’s too much. It may feel like it’s too soon. And that’s OK. It’s OK to say no.

But don’t be afraid to say yes.

Part of the conflict we feel about celebrating during a period of grief is related to our ideas of what others think is appropriate. Will our friends or other family members be upset by our choice to go ahead with a celebration? Will they think it’s too soon? Sometimes we try to balance this with what we think the loved one would have wanted. If Grandma was excited about the shower, would she have been upset if we canceled? It’s easy to feel torn about decisions like this!

While you can certainly weigh the opinions of family and friends, the ultimate choice should be yours. Don’t forget that connecting with other people, sharing memories and happy experiences, are what celebrations are all about. And these things also can help us to heal.

Make new traditions.

Particularly if you’re struggling with a decision to celebrate, traditions can help to ease you into this new world. A tradition that honors your loved one, for example, is a way to bring them into your celebration, to remember them at the event or holiday, and to feel their presence when you reflect on those memories later.

Keep old traditions.

We spent my daughter’s first Christmas in the hospital with my parents, who had been in a terrible car accident just weeks before. Almost everything about that day was different—and mostly not anything you’d want to repeat—but we started the morning with our traditional Christmas waffles. It may sound silly, but that breakfast was an anchor, a piece of normalcy in an otherwise crazy day.

Traditions require no extra thinking or planning, you just do what you’ve always done. There’s great comfort in that, so make sure to include some of your old traditions in your plans.

Accept help.

If you’ve suffered a loss, you know that fatigue, aches and pains, and insomnia can make even everyday activities a challenge. Try planning a major event during the grieving process and you will very quickly realize that you can’t do it alone. And you shouldn’t.

Friends, family, colleagues, neighbors—all will likely offer help during this time. Make sure to accept their assistance. Delegate as much as you can. If you are working on a larger event and haven’t hired a planner, consider doing so. Freeing up some of your time will allow you to…

Take care of yourself.

Grief requires a lot of energy and can take a toll on your physical health. It’s easy to think of others first and forget that you, too, need adequate sleep, nourishing food, moderate exercise, and time for self-care. I don’t want to trot out that old story about the oxygen mask on the plane, but it’s very true—you have less to give others when you don’t take care of yourself first.

Release expectations.

After a loss, special occasions simply won’t be the same. Acknowledging that our celebrations will be new and different without this person allows us to accept the disappointment and sadness while allowing for joy to sneak back in unexpected ways. Be kind to yourself at these celebrations, and remember that they are rarely all sad or all happy; your tears won’t be out of place at a funeral OR a wedding—and neither will your laughter.

Celebrations serve such an important purpose in our lives. They represent our gratitude for our favorite people. They create wonderful memories for us to reflect on and draw strength from for years to come. And during bereavement, they strengthen the bonds of love between those of us who are left behind.

Have you celebrated during a period of loss? Did you feel conflicted about it? What helped you to celebrate while grieving?