Coping with Grief and Loss Over the Holidays
How do you celebrate the joy and wonder of the holiday season when you’re coping with the loss of someone close to you?
The Christmas holidays can be stressful for many people, even for organized folks who seem to be on top of everything. But when you're coping with the loss of a loved one, the feelings of despair and uncertainty at Christmas can be amplified. If you’ve lost a life companion, something as simple as signing a Christmas card can bring on a flood of tears: What names do you put on the card this year? It’s not easy to celebrate a holiday without someone who's always been there.
It doesn’t matter if you’re grieving the loss of a spouse, a friend, a sister or brother, a parent, or even a furry pet companion; well-intended suggestions to “get on with life” or “try to get back to normal.” rarely help when you’re heartbroken during the holidays. Indeed, there’s a lot of social pressure to carry on and act “normal” for the benefit of your friends, children and family. But it just doesn’t seem fair to have to put on a happy face when you're grief-stricken.
If cancelling Christmas or running away to a deserted island is not an option for you, here are some gentle tips to help you get through the holidays.
Take care of your physical and emotional needs when you’re dealing with grief at Christmas. Although it may be tempting to wash your grief away with wine and festive cocktails, alcohol can contribute to a depressed state of mind. Eat a balanced diet, but don't deny yourself the rich, indulgent comfort foods that seem to be everywhere at this time of year. Moderation is key. Focus on activities that help you deal with your loss in a healthy and nourishing way: take a walk, treat yourself to a massage, meditate, write and draw in a journal, take a refreshing afternoon nap. Eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep can make coping with grief over the holidays a little easier.
Invite others to help you carry on holiday traditions that you and your loved one shared. Talk about your loved one with friends and family and encourage them to share their favorite memories with you. Tell them about the things that you used to do together to celebrate the season and ask them if they'll join you in keeping the tradition going. For example, perhaps you and your loved one always watched a sentimental movie together while sitting in front of a crackling fire. It won’t be the same sharing this tradition with someone else, but it will keep you connected to the little things from holidays past that made you happy. Remember, different people deal with grief at Christmas in different ways.
Don’t be afraid to create new Christmas traditions. It’s OK to start new traditions even if you’re grieving at Christmas. There's no need to feel guilty about doing something new this year. The person you are missing so deeply will still be in your heart and in your mind.
Give to others in need (without wearing yourself out). Consider volunteering your time with an organization that provides relieve from poverty. Homeless shelters, food banks and social service agencies are always in need of extra people power over the holidays.
Unplug the TV and Internet once in a while. At this time of year, advertisers, news outlets, magazines and newspapers love to dispense advice on what Christmas should look like: happy people gathered around a dinner table, endless presents underneath the tree, joyous family reunions. The subtle suggestion is that there's only one way to celebrate Christmas and everything you do should be geared towards recreating those magical images on TV or in the pages of magazines. But it can be painful to be reminded again and again that your Christmas will be different this year. Limiting your mainstream media consumption can help keep feelings of lack and loss at bay over the holidays.
Seek outside support. Consider joining a bereavement support group. Sometimes talking to people outside your circle of family and friends can make it easier to express your pain in healthy ways. By participating in a support group you’ll have the chance to talk to others who are going through the same thing as you. They know how hard it can be to get into the festive spirit. Having an outlet beyond your social circle means that you don’t have to put on a happy face or worry about “keeping it together” for the sake of the kids. A bereavement support group is a place for you to experience your grief without fear that you’ll be bringing others down.
Grant yourself permission to put your feelings and needs first. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel in the moment. If something makes you laugh, then laugh—there is nothing to be ashamed of when you are grieving. If an activity brings you joy and allows you to forget your pain, even temporarily, go with it. Surviving the holidays and getting through it all in one piece will not diminish the love and affection you had for the one you're missing. It's OK to have moments of happiness in the middle of deep sadness and sorrow.
Find things to be grateful for. It may seem impossible to imagine feeling gratitude when you're in mourning, but gratitude is a powerful antidote to sadness and depression. Be thankful for even the smallest of comforts—a cup of warm tea on a cold day, a Christmas ornament made by a small child, a homemade treat delivered by a friend or neighbor—these are all small reminders that life is still beautiful.
Create a lasting legacy in your loved one’s name. In lieu of exchanging gifts this year, give a memorial gift to a charity or cause that your loved one was fond of. Let family and friends know that you’d like donations to be made in the deceased’s name instead of exchanging gifts this year.
Some of the suggestions in this article on coping with grief over the holidays may work for you, and others may not. The most important thing is to honor your feelings of loss and sadness and do what feels right for you at this challenging time of year. When you're sad about the loss of a loved one, there’s no right or wrong way to cope over the holidays. It may be a few years before you are able to get through the holidays without feeling a deep sense of loss and sadness. Any occasion-–a birthday, anniversary, or family gathering—that brings up memories of your loved one can be difficult. Be kind to yourself.
© 2013 Sadie Holloway