Managing the Holidays When You’re Grieving
With Thanksgiving just behind us and the December holidays up ahead, it is imperative for people who are grieving during the Holiday season to find peace through effective coping and self-care. Here are some tips for how to do so this holiday season. Please keep in mind that these are general suggestions. Grief is a unique process and the relationship you shared with your loved one is even more unique, so allow these tips to guide exploration of possible ways to support yourself during this season.
1. Collect whatever gratitude and support you can find
Arlo Guthrie said, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in”. We live our lives taking for granted the everyday stuff – breathing, walking, talking, hearing – until something big happens. Suddenly, we find ourselves in darkness, in grief, the rawest form of love that exists - the heart wrenching explosion of love and pain all mixed together. But in that darkness, we find gratitude again for the every day things, for being alive, for having felt love even though it has led to pain without the person in your life anymore. When people around you are talking about thankfulness and gratitude during the holidays, you may initially cringe because on the surface it is hard to identify gratitude when you are actively grieving. But when you stop, breathe, and take a moment to reflect, usually there is somewhere within that feels grateful – a sunset, a sign, a familiar scent, a memory. Collect whatever gratitude you can find and hold it tight as we move through the ways to survive the holidays when you are grieving.
When people offer support, in the form of food, company, a ride, a place to go, often we say thanks but I’m okay, even when we’re not okay at all. Are people sick of hearing about my loss? How will they judge me? Are we going to talk about it? What if I start crying? And the most common, I don’t want to be a burden. Let’s reframe that. The people who care about you want to feel helpful – both to assist you and because this in turn benefits them. When we help someone who is hurting, we feel better within ourselves for being instrumental in helping them (don’t skip to number 5 on our list yet!!). Give that gift to the people around you who want to help you – family, friends, and strangers alike. Say yes to offers of support and help when you can. If you fear your family and friends don’t want to engage in conversations about grief any longer, find a grief group to attend and also open a dialogue with those who love you because they may be more accepting of the conversations about grief than you think and just not know what to say.
2. Befriend the Dragon and know how to soothe it
The “darker” emotions of grief: sadness, anger, guilt, and fear to name a few, can be thought of as the Dragon. Our goal in grief is to find the path to walk alongside the Dragon rather than try to fight it off or escape it all together, neither of which tend to work indefinitely. Grief is a mess of terrible and beautiful emotions that slam into you like alternating waves and pangs of good, bad, and ugly simultaneously. A memory will make us smile, then immediately make us sad, then make us feel warm, then make us feel guilty, all within the span of a few seconds. It’s all very confusing and upsetting really. But when we fight those emotions off, when we stuff them down and try to shut them out, they rear their ugly head at inappropriate times or become physical symptoms that we have less control over. Rather, if we allow the emotions out when they surface, even if this means excusing ourselves to the bathroom for a cry or our car for a scream, make the space for yourself to do so and give yourself permission that this is acceptable. Identify ways to soothe those intense emotions – breathing exercises, a walk, singing, a mantra – whatever works for you so you can collect yourself back up and re-immerse in whatever you were doing before the grief attack hit. Try to get outside – nature and fresh air are powerful healers. If you feel you need guidance with the stronger emotions, seek the help of a supportive therapist with experience in grief work.
Creating an exit plan for when the moment hits is important, particularly as we enter this time of year with holiday parties and family gatherings. Have a plan for what you can say to excuse yourself or prepare the host of the gathering that you may need to leave early. Sometimes knowing you have a strategy to leave can be enough peace of mind to enable you to stay.
3. Talk about your loved one or find another way to include their presence
It’s okay to talk about your loved one. People often say that they wish others would mention their loved ones name, then their friends and family say they didn’t mention them because they didn’t want to make the grieving person upset. But we want to know our loved one is not being forgotten. So open the door to the conversation if it feels right for you to do so. Remember, people do not all grieve the same. This may work for you or you may want to remember your loved one more privately. Honor your instincts. It’s okay to try something out to see if it will work, but if it doesn’t or if trying it doesn’t feel right, allow yourself to be where you need to be in that moment. Don’t allow the fear of making someone else uncomfortable stop you from talking about your loved one if you feel you want to talk about them. If talking about your loved one with others is not what you feel you need, try talking to your loved one. Express your feelings to them and ask for their guidance and love as you move through the season.
4. Maintain some traditions but also create new ones
People wonder if they should maintain their traditions or depart entirely from what they used to do. Often the best method for coping with the holidays is a balance between the two. Keeping some traditions – a favorite food to eat, an ornament or menorah they loved, a longstanding family tradition – is important if it feels right. Some people make changes to those traditions in location or decoration to separate the intensity of sticking close to what was experienced when their loved one last attended the holiday but some people choose to maintain the old traditions completely because it helps them to feel closer to their loved one. Whether you choose to maintain or change your traditions, many people find it comforting to add in some new traditions by including their loved one in the holidays as a way of honoring them. The two common ways to do this are by including them at the table, either by leaving an empty chair or by lighting a candle on the table for them, or by purchasing a gift for them that you would have bought when they were living and finding someone in need to receive the gift. Continuing to share a connection with your loved one on a spiritual or memorial level is an essential part of the grief process, so honor them with something old, something new, or a mix of both.
5. Give back
It’s incredible how good it feels for us to give to someone in need. When you feel at your lowest, it is challenging to offer your support to another person, but this is the challenge to push yourself towards during grief. It can be very simple or more elaborate – make a sandwich for someone who is homeless, drop old clothes or toys at a children’s shelter, visit your local animal shelter to provide snuggles or food, donate to a charity, give a gift for/from your loved one as mentioned above, organize a walk in memory of your loved one, or simply hold a door for someone, offer a pleasant exchange with a stranger, or call a friend or family member who you feel also is in a time of needing support. Find a way to contribute to the world outside and it will help draw you back into it. We intrinsically feel comfort when we give to another in need.
This holiday season, honor your loved one, however it works best for you. Take a moment to close your eyes, hand on your heart, taking a deep breathe, and thank them for having been yours despite it not being for long enough. Honor yourself by trusting the voice within that guides your comfort level and by actively engaging in self-care – breathing, walking, going to the park or beach, and being around people who make you feel good - family, friends, or support networks such as the groups you can find at Gilda’s Club.
Wishing you a peaceful holiday season.
Lisa Zucker, MSW, LCSW, Certified Thanatologist