Grief and the Holidays

In our household the holidays were the best time of year because we always spent them together. Decked out holiday trees, apple cider, a lavish spread of entrees and sides, silly holiday outfits for the dogs. We all gathered at the table over great food, exchanged stories and memories, and talked about how this was our favorite time of year. But this is the second year that one of the seats at the table will be empty. And that is a reality my family will be reminded of every year from now on. This new normal we are now living in puts a grim spin on a season that used to be filled with so much light and love. The holidays now come with a great deal of anxiety, anticipation, and sometimes dread.

  • Will I wear the right thing?
  • What happens if I don’t say the right thing?
  • What happens if I talk too much?
  • Do I even want to participate this year?
  • How much longer are we going to feel like this?
  • Is what we’re feeling normal?
  • Will every holiday be filled with a mix of happiness, and sadness?
  • Will we ever feel “normal” again?

What I quickly realized is that none of these questions have easy answers. The only way to even attempt to get through the holidays, is just to do it. Sometimes learning by doing is the best we can do, and then we get better at it as the years go on. Being that this year is my second time around since the loss, there are a few things I learned from last year.

Know that parts of the holiday will be wonderful, and that some will be sad

For me the anticipation of the upcoming holiday season is usually worse than the actual holiday itself. I find myself becoming more anxious as the holidays grow closer, but then find that the holidays themselves provide some level of healing. That’s not to say there aren’t some days that I feel sad. There are many days like that, but the important thing to note is that not every day will be like that. Some days will be better than others, and as time goes on the good days will eventually outnumber the bad.

It’s ok to feel the way you feel

Grief often recruits many different emotions within us, and when we’re feeling multiple emotions at once, untangling one particular emotion can be difficult. One feeling that is particularly difficult to handle is anger, given that it is socially unacceptable to be angry during the holidays. But pretending nothing is wrong won’t spare you any pain. It is important to acknowledge the way you feel, because stuffing this feeling down and repressing it will only amplify it, and it will manifest at a future time. Often when your emotional reserve is wearing thin. Acknowledging whatever emotions you may be feeling is the best way to start to understand them, sort them out, and move forward.  When your emotions feel out of whack, and you are having a difficult time coping do your best to remember the good times, laugh about funny memories, and acknowledge that you miss the person you loved so much.

Just Be

Sometimes holidays can be difficult for peripheral family members, and by that I mean in-laws, close family friends, work acquaintances, neighbors, etc. These times are often trying for them because they don’t know what to say or what to do. A good rule of thumb is, if you don’t know what to do, do nothing. Family gatherings can be tense particularly if the loss is recent. When people are in pain there is a tendency to be more reactive due to having less emotional reserve than usual. Instead of focusing on trying to “fix” things, just be there. Chances are the family you are trying to support is grateful just for your presence. Remember that silence is powerful. So if you want to focus on something. Be a good friend, be a good listener, and just be present in the moment.

Take care of yourself

Try and follow your normal routine whenever possible, especially if it already includes eating healthy and exercising. When people are grieving there can be a tendency to drown that pain in less healthy devices like sugar and alcohol. If alcohol is present, remember to drink responsibly, or not at all if you’re worried about it being a problem. Keep up with exercise as this helps clear your mind and lower your stress. When you’re emotionally taxed it is even more important to try to get good sleep.

Navigating family traditions

There is no easy answer when it comes to family traditions. It is usually best to discuss as a family what the best thing to do is. Sometimes family traditions can be a wonderful way to remember a loved one, but sometimes they can be too painful to bear without them. Finding a new normal is exceptionally difficult. Don’t feel obligated to come up with an answer for each subsequent holiday season now. Every year that goes by will be different, and plans can be adjusted accordingly.

Gift giving

Gift giving can be one of the toughest parts of the holidays because the absence of the lost loved one is so profound. It can be helpful to give a gift on behalf of the person who died, as a way to honor their memory. Make a donation to a hospital, assemble care packages for veterans, donate to a food bank, serve meals at a homeless shelter, adopt a pet, donate clothes or school supplies, etc.

One final word about loss during the holidays. It is often difficult to positively reflect on the holidays when we are grieving. One thing to keep in mind is that the loved one/ones we lost would want us to remember them fondly, and enjoy the holiday season. The holidays are rare occasions when families who are often separated by long distances come together. That time is precious, and as we well know, is limited. Making the most of the time you have together will be a work in progress and is the pathway to healing.

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