The day after Thanksgiving is my mom’s celebration of life. Nothing can prepare you for death, but witnessing my 90-year-old mom suffer from Alzheimer’s has been quite an emotional rollercoaster. Some days I feel at peace, knowing that my mom reunited with my dad on his heavenly birthday. Other days, I wish I had just one more Christmas with her even though she lost the ability to communicate. Her smile, laughter and unintelligible responses still made our family interactions priceless.

My adult daughters, my husband and I plan to enjoy a family vacation on the Big Island the week before Christmas. I’m realizing there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays after losing my mom. My role in her life transformed from being her child to her caregiver the last five years of her life. Moving her into a care home on September 1, 2019 was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. As part of an Alzheimer’s Facebook Group, I read heartbreaking stories of daughters feeling guilty. They also shared how lost they felt without their mom during the holidays. Some sink into depression and refuse to celebrate the holiday season.

As I contemplate how I plan to celebrate the holidays, I decided my mom can still be a part of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’ve been sharing our favorite memories of my mom. My youngest enjoys going to the sushi restaurant my parents used to take us, and ordering my mom’s favorite dishes. My oldest shares funny anecdotes my mom would share with her during her sleepovers at my parents’ home.

We’ll appreciate the Christmas ornaments my mom gave the girls every year as we decorate the tree after returning from our Big Island trip. I’ve been reaching out to my mom’s friends as well as her nieces and nephews who share their treasured memories of interacting with their favorite aunt. Knowing how much joy she spread has warmed my heart. It’s magical how my grief seems to heal a little each time I hear stories about how my mom touched someone’s life.

As I reminisce about the old traditions my mom started with my girls, I decided to start my own traditions. My mom used to play a money box game after we opened all of our presents. There would be mystery boxes filled with a dollar bill, two filled with a five dollar bill, two filled with a ten dollar bill, and the sought after box with a twenty dollar bill. We each chose a box and enjoyed the reactions of the grand prize winner screaming with joy as well as the whining loser of the one dollar bill who complained how unfair it was to have chosen the “wrong” box. This year, to instill a tradition that isn’t focused on money, I plan to have each of us share a trait about each family member they appreciate in addition to their favorite memory. Leaving a holiday legacy for your children will make the holidays extra special as future generations will pass on traditions you’ve started. I envision my daughters making mini pigs-in-a-blanket (wrapping Little Smokies in Pillsbury crescent rolls) on future Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings for their family.

The most important advice I plan to follow from others who share how they cancelled their first Christmas without their mom is to do what I feel like doing without judgment. So, if you recently lost your mom and struggle with the upcoming holidays, give yourself permission to do whatever your heart longs for. Splurge on that gift that you might see as totally irresponsible in purchasing. It’s amazing how my taste buds celebrate when I dive into a decadent dessert. Don’t give in to the pressure of sending out holiday cards or buying presents. I’m still struggling with cancelling gift giving, but decided to make it easy by placing an Amazon order last night. But, I promise you that the world will not end and you will survive if you decide not to give anyone presents.

As a mom, guilt often seeps into my mind and I feel like I’m the worst mother on earth if I don’t buy gifts for my daughters. I discovered a simple secret: I write a heartwarming note and give them cash. They’ve never once been disappointed as they get to choose what they want instead of pretending they like the gift I bought out of desperation. Don’t shop because you feel obligated to be into the holiday spirit of gift giving. Giving yourself permission not to decorate your home for the holidays or delegate that dreaded task.

Allowing myself to feel a bit of joy and releasing the guilt of laughing while I’m grieving has been so healing. Part of me feels that in order to properly mourn, I shouldn’t be enjoying myself. But, I’ve realized that my mom would want me to continue to enjoy the holidays while honoring her memory. So, I plan to eat her favorite foods, share past childhood holiday memories with my family and create new family traditions to teach my daughters that losing their grandma doesn’t have to ruin the holidays for us. If you’ve recently lost your mom, and this is your first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her, I invite you to give yourself permission to have a good cry, skip the celebration without guilt or try one of the suggestions I shared. You might be surprised that it’s possible to experience a bit of joy while traveling on your grief journey.

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