Written By Heather Mullaly, M.S.Ed, Volunteer Resident Counselor
This is the time of year when we typically get together with friends and family and celebrate the holidays. We are told that this is supposed to be a festive time with laughter and cheer. So what happens when you are grieving the loss of a loved one during the “most wonderful time of the year”? Grief can be something that is not easy for us to deal with in general and it can be especially difficult to cope with during this time. Here are some things that can make grieving during the holidays a little easier.
Plan for the Holidays: Take the time to think about the holiday before it arrives. Most families follow the same traditions or routines year after year which causes us to “autopilot” the holidays. A loss means that things will change. Think about what will change this year ahead of time: someone different may need to host the holiday; everyone’s favorite dish may need to be made by someone else or not at all; a special tradition may need to be modified. Discuss the holiday plans with your family so that everyone is on the same page.
Be realistic with yourself: Do not try to do too much or feel pressured into creating the “perfect” holiday. It is okay if you need to scale things back and not do as much as you usually do every year. Let other people help with the planning, cooking, decorating, or whatever else. There is also nothing wrong with taking the year off from celebrating the holiday if you find that you are really not feeling up to it.
Express your feelings and know when to take a break: If you feel like crying, then go ahead and cry. If you feel angry, then punch a pillow. There are many types of feelings that can be associated with grief and it is normal and good to allow yourself to experience them even if they are unpleasant. You have a right to express those feelings; you do not have to suppress or hide them. At the same time, know when you need to take a break from those feelings. Sometimes distracting yourself by doing “busy work”, watching a funny movie, or having coffee with a friend can be a good thing.
Take care of yourself: Make sure that you are eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising. Schedule time to do things that you enjoy and that relax you. If you do these types of things on a regular basis it may be helpful to do a little extra during this time. It is also a good idea to be mindful of the amount of alcohol you consume. If you need to relax try going for a walk or taking a hot bath instead.
Spend time with others: While it is important to take time for yourself, it is also important to make sure that you do not isolate yourself. Spend time with friends and family; especially those that are closest to you. If you are unable to spend time with family or friends, consider donating some of your time to help others at places such as a local soup kitchen, charitable organization, or nursing home.
Remember your loved one: You can do something special during the holidays in memory of your loved one. Some ideas include: leaving an empty table setting for them, making a memorial ornament, lighting a candle, looking at old photos or videos, displaying their picture, writing your loved one a letter, or sharing fond memories or old stories with your family. You can create something new to do this one time or make it a new yearly tradition.
Don’t forget the children: Children have a right to grieve as well. Let them see you grieving; it helps normalize things for them and sets the example that expression of feelings is okay. Ask them how they are feeling and share how you are feeling with them. Also explain that sometimes we can become overwhelmed by feelings and that if they need to take a break to be by themselves for a little while then that is fine. Include them in the holiday planning and in remembering the loved one. You can even create special activities for them such as making a holiday card for their loved one (some people burn the card afterwards and watch the ashes “float up to reach” the loved one).
Be aware of triggers: It is also important to know that the holidays can be a time where grief may be triggered. A song, a smell, a particular food, and a whole host of things in our environment can bring our grief to the surface. Take the time to accept it and then do something to get your mind off of it.
Holiday time does not mean that you have to put aside your grief and pretend it is not there. Listen to yourself and do what feels right for you. There is no right or wrong way to grieve; at this time of the year or any other. Following the tips discussed here will not erase your grief but they can make things easier and show you that grief and the holidays can in fact coexist.