The holidays can be difficult when you have experienced a loss. The loss can be a person, a pet, a job or a relationship. Culturally, we have learned that holidays are supposed to be filled with love, happiness, family, friends and get-togethers. When you have experienced a loss of some kind, getting through the holidays can be difficult. The feelings of grief can become intensified. You may be filled with memories of times go by or feelings of hopelessness for the future. There are ways to cope with loss and grief during the holiday season.
Things You Can Do
DO go easy on yourself. Understand that getting over a loss takes time. Be patient with yourself and with others. Prioritize things. If making cookies is something good for you to do, then do it. If not, pass on it this year.
DO understand that the holiday with be different. No matter how hard you try to make the holiday the same, you and those around you will still experience loss and feelings of grief. We need to understand that some parts of the holidays will need to change (for instance, Grandpa won’t be carving the turkey this year). The first holiday without a loved one is always the hardest. Acknowledging that the holiday will be different, and planning ahead for the change, may make it less painful.
DO allow yourself to express your feelings. Grief is a painful feeling and grieving is a process that takes time. Talk about your feelings with a loved one, family member or a friend. Keeping your feelings inside is not healthy for your emotional and physical well-being. Ignoring your feelings won’t make them go away. Some people find it helpful to write their feelings into a journal. This compartmentalizes the feelings and allows you time to grieve and then time to engage in other activities.
DO plan ahead. When we plan ahead we may be able to target some, if not all, of the stressors of the holidays. Decide which traditions you wish to continue. Plan how you want to use your time so that you avoid feelings overwhelmed by last-minute details. Not planning ahead can exacerbate these feelings that you may already be experiencing due to grief. Plan ahead on how you want to remember your loved ones.
DO embrace memories. Death can never take away memories of a loved one. Holidays make us reminisce on the past. Share the memories with family and friends. Understand that memories may bring up sadness and well as happiness and joy. If the memories make you happy, it’s okay to smile and laugh. Good and sad memories may cause us to feel sadness and cry. It’s important to let out both positive and difficult feelings.
Things You Should NOT Do
DO NOT try to act like everything is okay when it’s not. Sometimes during the holidays we feel a sense of responsibility to make it “perfect” for others, such as spouses, in-laws and children. No one is expecting this except you. During the holidays, the grief can be activated more intensely than any other time of the year. Expect there are going to be moments when you’ll be sad, angry and frustrated about someone you love. When we pretend everything is okay, we do not allow others to see how we are really doing, and it doesn’t allow others to step in and help us in our grieving process.
DO NOT feel guilty. Holidays can be joyful times. Do not feel guilty for having fun, laughing and enjoying the company of others during the holiday season. If you send out cards and decorate your home, it may be your way of coping with grief. It is not disrespectful to your loved one to carry on traditions. These traditions may help you in the grief process. Also, do not feel guilty about eliminating something or a tradition during the holidays because it’s too painful. If you need to say “No” or pass along certain responsibilities, don’t beat yourself up over it. You loved ones and friends will understand.
DO NOT be afraid to reminisce. Talking with friends and family about times gone by is a wonderful way to remember your loved one. Sharing memories keeps your loved one very much a part of your life even if they are not physically present any longer. Ask others to reminisce with you. They may be able to share memories that you were not aware of, memories that keep them close to your heart.
DO NOT be afraid to cry or share your feelings. Grieving typically involves many feelings, and these feelings may be expressed in crying. When we try too hard to hold feelings inside of us, there’s a chance that our emotions may overwhelm us. We may feel as we may be having an emotional breakdown. It is healthy to let your feelings out. Sometimes people worry that crying will upset others or that once they start, the tears will never stop. Crying is a sign that something is hurting us. Tell others that you might cry, and not to worry.
DO NOT try to replicate the past. When we lose someone we love, change is inevitable. Holidays, in particular, are going to be different. Maintain traditions that work for you; stop those that don’t. Be open to new traditions. When we become rigid on recreating what once was, we will be disappointed. You cannot go back. You have to keep moving forward. Moving forward does not mean forgetting your loved one. ###
Dr. Frank Sileo, founder and Executive Director of The Center for Psychological Enhancement, LLC, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, is a licensed psychologist and author specializing in work with children and adolescents. [Dr. Sileo’s website]