For me, the holidays became stressful right after I turned 8-years-old. My paternal grandfather had a massive heart attack the beginning of December 1981, was hospitalized until his open-heart bypass surgery on December 29, 1981, and died on the operating table. He had turned 61 four days prior on Christmas Day. Can you imagine our holidays ever since?! You may not have this dramatic of a holiday memory, but I guarantee we all have something within our family history that can lead to more stress over the holidays.
The holidays are already stressful because we have to-do lists that will never be finished on time, shopping for food and gifts, extra activities to schedule including school concerts as well as family gatherings, and no one gets enough sleep as it is, especially from Thanksgiving through the end of the year. We are already set up for a pressure-cooker situation to explode. Once we add in unhappy memories or unresolved conflicts, it becomes a precarious at best situation.
In my family, Dad got crabby right after Thanksgiving with his mood spiraling downward as Christmas approached. While I understood it was his memory of a painful December when he lost his dad prematurely, I still had a hard time with his moods, plus, I was a kid. What is a kid supposed to do with a moody parent?! My mom had a phenomenal approach to the holiday season that I think made things 100% better than they would have been if she hadn't been attentive to the potential "land mines" around our holiday season. She prepared me and my brother for the season by reminding us how much Grandpa meant to all of us and how it is okay for us and for our dad to be sad and unpredictable during this time. She also reminded us that Grandpa loved the holiday season and he would be happy to know we were still having fun and enjoying being together as a family. I am not entirely sure what she did with my dad, but I do know she was quick to give him space for his emotions and to encourage him to engage in the holiday in whatever way he chose. That meant a pretty incredible Christmas tree that was often too tall and too overloaded with lights an ornaments for my mom's taste, but it made Dad happy, so she encouraged it. It also meant building gingerbread houses, lots of sneaking around hiding special gifts, and creating meaningful traditions we all could get caught up in without getting weighed down too much with memories.
We have never gotten away from the dark memories of that 1981 holiday season and we still miss Grandpa every year, but we have learned it is okay to be sad. It is okay to have moments of anger. It is okay to continue to process the unfair, untimely death of a man we all dearly love. It is not okay to allow memories to become the tone of our current day celebration. We still have each other and we have rich memories, so the healthy way is to fuse the two into a bittersweet season of celebrating what we had with Grandpa and how that lead to what we have now as a family.