Grief and the Holidays: Coping on Your Own Terms

For most people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration with family and friends. But for those who’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, it can be a lonely and depressing time. Old traditions, cherished holiday songs and favorite recipes can all be painful reminders of a loved one’s passing. Grief following any loss can be difficult, but the grief that follows death can be downright devastating, and the holidays frequently accentuate it.

“Grief doesn’t just touch one part of your life, it touches the whole of your being,” says Carol Pack, a medical social worker with the Mayo Clinic Hospice Program, Wabasha, Minn. “Because of that, the holidays can be an especially difficult time.”

Old traditions, new traditions

Among the great things about the holidays are the traditions passed on from generation to generation. Year after year your family may drink eggnog and tell stories on Christmas Eve or light your great-great grandmother’s menorah during Hanukkah. After a friend or family member dies, some people take comfort in these holiday rituals, while others may find them too painful to continue.

Pack suggests keeping the traditions that are comforting to you and replacing those that cause you pain. “Surround yourself with rituals that bring you comfort, not those that impose or cause stress,” she says. “If a ritual is work for you, or if it imposes on you in any way, it’s OK to say no.”

If a certain Christmas song brings back too many memories, set it aside and listen to another one. As well, try baking new kinds of cookies or engaging in new and different activities.

This, too, shall pass

Regardless of the amount of time that’s passed since the death — be it days, months or even years — it can still be difficult to celebrate the holidays. Will this pass? Eventually, says Pack, but it’s hard to say when.

“People often think that they should be through grieving by a certain time,” she says. “But there is no set time frame. Grief is a very personal, individual and intimate experience that’s different for everyone.”

Grief is the result of a deep wound that will only heal with time and attention. Don’t let people push you through the grief process or force you into decisions that you’re not ready to make. Being true to your feelings is the best way to heal.

Celebrating life

It’s hard for some people to celebrate after a loved one dies. Memories of past celebrations can be painful, and guilt may set in as they find themselves having fun. It’s important to remember that your feelings — happy or sad — are OK.

“Feelings are real,” says Pack. “Whether it’s guilt, anger, sadness or relief, the feelings that you’re experiencing are real and it’s OK to express them.”

Don’t avoid expressing your feelings. Talk about them and tell others what’s going on inside you. Set aside time to experience and deal with what you’re feeling. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by grief, talk to your doctor.

“Ultimately, it’s important to talk about what you’ve discovered in the grieving process,” says Pack. “Telling your story will give others permission to tell theirs.”

Eventually, says Pack, you’ll be able to move away from talking about the death to talking about the person. You can then begin to share stories and memories with your family and friends.

A celebration of life will ensue, and the sadness of death will slowly begin to dim.

“Grieving acknowledges and celebrates the union that you had with the person who died,” says Pack. “It will help you reflect on his or her life and its impact on yours.”

Coping tips

  • Keep comforting traditions and replace those that cause you pain.
  • Grief heals with time and attention. Don’t let people rush your grieving process. Take your time and be true to your own feelings.
  • Don’t feel guilty about having fun, but remember that your feelings — happy or sad — are OK.
  • Don’t avoid expressing your feelings. Talk about them and tell others what’s going on inside of you. Eventually you’ll stop talking about the death of your loved one and you’ll start sharing stories and memories.

Helping friends cope

If someone you know has recently suffered a loss, remember him or her during the holiday season. Help the person work through his or her feelings by following these tips:

  • Acknowledge the loss. Ask, “How are you doing?” and be willing to listen to the response.
  • Show an interest in learning about feelings. Ask, “What’s your favorite memory?” or “What’s the thing you miss the most?”
  • Allow for feelings of sadness. Avoid comments such as, “It was for the best,” or “You’ll get over it.”
  • Expect the bereaved person to be tired. Grieving takes energy.
  • Help him or her stay healthy — bring a bag lunch to share at work or suggest going for a walk together.
  • If possible, offer to help out with household duties, holiday preparations or projects at work.
  • When the time is right, share your stories and memories of the loved one.

If someone you know seems overwhelmed by grief and unable to cope, professional treatment may be necessary. In such situations, suggest that the individual discuss those feelings with his or her doctor.

December 03, 2001
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