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Survivor: The Holiday Grief Challenge

Survivor: The Holiday Grief Challenge

By Colleen Friesen

A quick Google search revealed that the popular Reality TV show, “Survivor,” is now into its 43rd season. The fabricated dramas and constructed struggles those contestants endure have nothing on what we, as grievers, face in the coming months.


I have lived my life embracing my free-spirit attitude. When I married my second husband, he showed me the beauty of organization. He helped me to see that being an organized free spirit is great!

With his support, I began facing the losses of my past. Part of that was recognizing that when painful times hit, I would dodge them rather than face them. Actually, that is a reasonable response to being surprised by something that threatens to knock you off your feet.

The best way I found to avoid some of those surprises is to prepare myself. This is similar to how contestants on Survivor prepare for the show by readying their mind, body, and strategies. Now I know that half of my year, October through the end of March is a grief mine field.


My minefield of holiday grief begins with Canadian Thanksgiving, which is early October. My mom’s birthday, on Halloween, is also the day she left us.

November holds the birthday of my eldest son, Errol, who has passed. My birthday at the beginning of December is followed by all the Christmas preparations. The challenge of Christmas is compounded for us. Errol fell and broke his ankle on Christmas eve. That break and the surgery to repair it resulted in his passing of a pulmonary embolism on January 13. My dad and brother departed at the end of February and my first husband crossed over at the end of March.


Winter has never been a favorite time for me. Now, the bleak, cold, and dark days of the year present a challenge but also an opportunity. As I gird myself for the journey ahead, I know that spotting and naming the triggers removes their power of surprise.

I book time off from work on days I know I will be too distracted to function. Watching my schedule so I don’t over-tax myself is very important. I ensure that I prioritize my self-care routines. In short, I look after myself because I know that it is going to be rough.


When we grieve, as with any time we are in pain, it is our natural response to draw in, hunker down, and adopt a ‘just leave me alone’ attitude. We all need and can benefit from times where we close the door and just wail. Spewing the pain out in a volcano of emotion usually leaves us feeling drained and washed clean.

Just remember that outside the door where you have closed yourself away stand people who can ease your pain and who need you to help ease theirs. When we hurt so bad it can take a herculean effort to lift our head and see the loved ones who are still here with us. Celebrate the fact that they are still with you! Wrap your arms around your family and friends and let them wrap theirs around you. Together you will carry one another through.


Another advantage of planning ahead is that you get a wide-angle view. From that vantage point you can find meaningful ways to invite the presence of those who are no longer here physically into your celebrations. For me, one of the biggest factors in continuing to live, not just survive is recognizing that Errol is still an active presence. Is that enough? No. It is, however, what I have and I choose to embrace and appreciate it fully.


My relationship with those who have passed is a daily interaction, so incorporating this altered reality into special days is beginning to feel natural. There are many ways to do this. I know many people who continue to set places at the feast table for those attending from the other side of the veil. We fill a stocking for Errol with as many kinds of Oreos as we can find (they were his favorite) then enjoy them together. We place his ornaments on the tree with reverence and tears. Buying gifts for the departed and keeping them as mementos or giving them to charity allows you the warmth of shopping for something they would love. Making and releasing Japanese lanterns can be a beautiful and meaningful tradition to commemorate transition anniversaries.

The ways to include departed loved ones in your celebrations are endless. Use your imagination or search the internet for something that warms your heart with memories and their continued presence. It need not be extravagant. Simply sharing memories with the others who remain, brings them back to life for you.


There can be an inclination for someone who is grieving the loss of a close relationship to feel twinges of guilt at happy times. As I have examined this tendency in myself, I believe the source of this lies largely in custom. In much of the world the transition from this life to the next is viewed as the ultimate horror. I believe we have that wrong. Passing out of this world is a transition very similar to birth.

The agony of passing is not in the passing, but in the remaining. In remaining, we miss those who have moved on. There is nothing wrong with missing. It is the natural response to no longer being able to experience a relationship you value in the same way. There is also nothing wrong with experiencing joy – even though we remain while those we love have moved on. I know the treasured souls who look back on us greatly desire our abundant joy.


I know you will make it through the trials of the months ahead. Like the final Survivor, I hope you emerge proud of your accomplishment, embracing all you’ve learned. Pack your survival kit well. Don’t forget: preparation, the love of family and friends, creating special moments, self-care, and embracing the joy that comes.

By Colleen Friesen Colleen Friesen is a proud mother, a blessed wife, a blossoming daughter, a compassionate and supportive sister and friend. She is the Associate Director of Human Resources at aa Community-based non-profit agency. The passing of her eldest son coalesced her passion for writing and helping into a focused purpose.

From Open to Hope Open to Hope is an online community offering inspirational stories of loss, hope and recovery. They believe hope is the bridge between loss and recovery.

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