Holidays or special days like birthdays and anniversaries can be difficult days for people who are grieving the loss of something or someone very meaningful in their lives. Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa and Thanksgiving are often the most difficult as more than any other, these days mean family togetherness. It is at these times that we are acutely aware of the void in our lives. For many, particularly at Christmas, we just want to skip it and go from December 24th to 27th. We continually hear carols being sung and people saying Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays when we may not be feeling so happy inside. Doing our holiday gift shopping, we see the perfect gift for our loved one who has died and suddenly realize that he or she will not be here to enjoy it.
Eventually, these times will not be so difficult. This statement may not seem possible to the newly bereaved, but grief WILL soften and you WILL begin to enjoy life again, including these holidays. In the meantime, here is some helpful advice from CHoR’s Transitional Care Unit chaplain, Dr. Cathie Stivers.
Plan early for the approaching holidays. Be aware that this might be a difficult time for you. It is important to be prepared for the stress that the holidays will place on you emotionally, mentally and physically. It is also important to be flexible if any of your plans don’t appear to be working for you.
Decide what you and your family can handle comfortably. “Can I handle the responsibility of the family dinner, etc., or should I ask someone else to do it? Do I want to talk about my loved one or not?” Be honest with each other about your feelings. Sit down with your family and decide what you want to do for the holiday season. Take on only what each family member is able to handle comfortably, and don’t feel guilty for doing less, or different, than usual.
Let family and friends know what your plans are, and how they can help. They can be called on to help with or take the lead on holiday shopping, cooking and other types of preparation. At the very least, they can support you in your decision to do things differently this year for the emotional well-being of you and your family.
Re-examine your priorities: greeting cards, holiday baking, decorating, putting up a tree, family dinner, etc. Grieving loss takes a lot of energy, and so does holiday preparation. Be aware of your energy limitations and consider engaging only in the activities that revive you or bring you comfort. If you decide to do holiday shopping, make a list ahead of time and keep it handy for a good day, or shop through catalogues or the Internet.
Re-evaluate family traditions. This may help to blunt the sharp sad memories of how things used to be. Consider altering the way things have always been done. Design new rituals and traditions, or do something symbolic to memorialize your loved one. You could light a candle, read a poem or prayer in their honor, create a memory book or quilt, or hang a stocking for them and let family and friends write notes of expression to the loved one that they have lost.
Consider doing something special for someone else. Donate a gift in the memory of your loved one. Donate money you would have spent on your loved one as a gift to charity. Adopt a needy family for the holidays. Invite a guest (foreign student, senior citizen, neighbor, etc.) to share festivities.
Spend time with people you trust and enjoy. Try not to isolate yourself with your feelings. Surround yourself with friends who do not judge your behavior, who allow you to talk about your grief, and value your feelings. Ask them to help you guard against wearing them out! You will need to save their valuable help for the days ahead.
Allow yourself to express your feelings. Holidays often magnify feelings of loss. It is natural to feel sadness. Share concerns, apprehensions and feelings with a friend. The need for support is often greater during holidays.
Try to get enough rest. Holidays are very demanding anyway, but even more so for those mourning a loss. Give yourself permission to limit your participation in holiday activities, and to intentionally carve out some ‘time off’ from people and the hustle-bustle of the holidays. However…
Avoid over-reliance on isolation, or alcohol and food. While some quiet and alone time is necessary, be careful not to remain too secluded for too long. Also, eating and drinking too much are often ways of avoiding or masking underlying emotions. If you find yourself overeating or over-drinking, consider the underlying motivation.
Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions, are finding yourself immobilized by your grief, or are having other adverse experiences or behaviors. This is also a good time to tap into your own faith system and beliefs for support. Sacred readings and prayers can be very comforting, and clergy are good resources for pastoral care as well as for obtaining referrals to support groups and professional counselors.
Believe that there will be other holiday seasons to celebrate in the near future, and they won’t be as painful as this one. While the holidays every year will bring up memories of lost loved ones, it will get a little easier each year.
Don’t be afraid to have fun. Laughter and joy are not disrespectful. Give yourself and your family members permission to celebrate and take pleasure in the holidays, without feeling guilt.
Coping with Grief during Holidays
How to Help Ourselves Through the Holidays
Great Tips for Surviving the Holidays When You’re Grieving