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Healing with Holiday Decorating

Decorator Annette Stahl helps clients deal with loss during the holiday season

Sparkling decorations are the first signs of the holiday. Putting up the Christmas tree, hanging lights on the house, placing candles in the menorah, and dressing up the mantle are typically joyful activities. The family chips in to help, and carols provide a cheerful background. 

Unfortunately, for many people, the twinkle of decorating dims because of grief. Perhaps a loved one died. Maybe a marriage ended. The sadness could be from a job layoff, children leaving the nest, or the end of a lifelong dream. Feelings of loss can multiply at a time when everyone is full of cheer.

Designer and coach Annette Stahl, the owner of A Design Discovery, understands coping with loss during the holidays. She says, "Grief is as unique as a fingerprint. It's like glitter. It pops up when and where you least expect it." 

Years ago, Stahl went through a divorce that became final on December 30th . Funds were tight for that holiday, so she and her two sons trudged in the field behind their house in search of a stick for a tree. They spray-painted it and used pipe cleaners to create decorations. The painted stick became their first tree as a family of three.

"It still goes up every year, reminding us of the fun of finding the perfect stick to cut down. A single mom's version of the Christmas tree tradition," she says.   

Years later, her partner was diagnosed with cancer. As his caregiver, she felt overwhelmed by the idea of decorating for the holidays. Her solution was to put on the movie "Elf," and with her sons, they decorated for the 97 minutes the film played. Their Christmas tree was turned into a snowman, a tradition they still do today. The decorating was complete when
the credits rolled at the movie's end. 

After her partner died, grief turned the Christmas season into a year of Festivus, the not-so-jolly holiday from the television show Seinfeld. However, she was inspired to share with others what she'd learned about coping with loss during the holidays.  

A Design Discovery is Stahl's company, established in 2009. She explains her design philosophy: "Our environments are holistic like nature. So, when I design, I integrate emotion, mental, spiritual, and physical with nature's elements. How do we want the space to function?

How do we want it to flow, and how do we want it to feel?  First comes clarity of intention, and then we talk about how we want it to look."

Stahl's home this year has a winter wonderland theme with added bits of humor. The snowman Christmas tree is flocked with snow and covered in pine cones, fluffy white feather snow, and natural critters topped with an elf hat. 

In the entryway, she decorates what's there with more elf hats for her Potwin Pottery monster and Scooby Doo knight. The stick tree from years ago is draped with a strand of white pom pom snowballs.  She shared that her dining room functions for connecting, so she has Styrofoam balls and crafts to play with and create snow creatures. 

The finishing touch is fresh flowers. Stahl points out studies have proven flowers have the natural ability to help people feel more joyful. Floral scents improve moods and make people feel less anxious. Flowers can also promote feelings of compassion, creativity, and energy.

Stahl offers these three suggestions for holiday decorating while healing from a loss:
1. There is no right or wrong way to decorate for the holidays. She says, "When dealing with a loss or life shift, acknowledge that the holidays will be different." 
2. Plan, but also be flexible. Try to understand what drives the need to decorate. "Is it coming from a feeling of joy, like I really want to decorate? Or maybe I want to make a donation in their name? In a moment of calm, create options of what might work. What feels aligned for you? Something new? Adding on to your traditions to adapt?"  
3. "Be gentle with yourself. Let yourself feel what you feel. I set a timer to feel sad or cry, and when it goes off, I get up and go outside for a walk or dance to my music. I get my body moving. I find being in nature healing and moving my body healing. The timer lets me know I can feel uncomfortable feelings and still move through them without being stuck in them. Whatever arises, instead of judging yourself, just love that you're human doing your very best in difficult times."

"You can't do it wrong," Stahl says. "Be gentle. It's your life. It's your design. There is no one else that's you. That's what makes it uniquely yours." For more information visit

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