"Happy Holidays!" is a greeting we hear often at this time of year - but if you're grieving the loss of your pet, the holiday season may be anything but happy for you.

Holidays can create feelings of dread and anxiety in those who are bereaved. The clichéd images of family togetherness and the often unrealistic expectations of a season filled with picture-perfect, joyful gatherings can cause tremendous stress for those who are not grieving - let alone for those in the midst of the painful, isolating experience of loss.

How does one celebrate the holidays when a loved one is so sorely missed? Creating new rituals and new traditions that may pay tribute to the memory of the deceased is one way to survive, and perhaps even embrace, the holidays when a loved one has died.

Here are some suggestions of what you can do:  

  • Decorate a wreath with pictures, toys and items that belonged to the animal who died and display the wreath in your home, or place it at the animal's grave site.
  • Wrap a framed picture of the lost animal, and give it as a gift to another grieving family member.
  • Create a special ornament labeled with the name of the deceased animal and hang it on the tree.
  • Decorate a candle and light it at meal time in memory of your loved animal. If you celebrate Chanukah, recall a memory of your pet on each of the eight nights that you light the Menorah.
  • Make a book of pictures about your pet to give or simply to share with one another. This is a good activity for children as well.
  • Make a donation to a favorite charity in the pet's honor.
  • Purchase a book -- perhaps a children's book -- on coping with the loss of a pet, and donate it to your local library or school. Ask the librarian to place a label inside the front cover inscribed, "In memory of (your pet's name)."
  • Mention your pet's name in the blessing over the food at the holiday dinner, or propose a toast to your pet's memory.
  • Share anecdotes and favorite stories about the pet who died. Sometimes others need permission to talk about the lost pet. Let them know you would rather keep the memory of your beloved pet alive than pretend nothing has changed.
  • Encourage grieving children to draw pictures and create gifts inspired by their memories of the pet to give to other family members.
  • Decorate and hang a cut-out star in your home with your hopes and dreams for the future. Thinking about tomorrow is part of your healing.

Then once you've remembered your cherished pet, make sure you remember yourself. Take care of yourself. Be aware that, when you're overly tired or under excessive stress, you're especially vulnerable to accidents and illness. Get enough sleep, nourishment and regular exercise. Avoid excessive amounts of caffeine (a stimulant) or alcohol (a depressant). Build relaxation time into your schedule. Try shopping when stores are less crowded and you're not feeling rushed. Listen to your favorite music or treat yourself to a special meal or relaxing bath. Seek out an understanding family member or trusted friend with whom you can talk and be yourself. Reach out to others in need of caring and sharing, perhaps by attending a pet loss support group meeting. Be gentle. Do what you can - no more and no less.

If it's too hard to be in the same place where you spent holidays together with your pet, opt for a change of scene and go somewhere new. If you can't afford a vacation, go to a restaurant - or a friend or family member's home that doesn't have painful associations with previous holidays. Although you can't erase thoughts and memories of your lost pet, it may help to create a new holiday experience.

See also: Coping with Holidays

Copyright © by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved

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