For many of us, Christmas and New Year mark the most exciting time of year, bustling with the anticipation of gifts, giving and celebrations with friends and family. While the holidays can be physically and emotionally draining for the most ardent holiday enthusiast, it is even moreso to those who are grieving.
Grief is a lifelong process, not an event that happens and is finished. It often pops up when we least expect it. Consequently, we may not connect our sadness to grief. If you are recently bereaved, and even if your loved one departed long ago, accept the likelihood of experiencing painful feelings over the absence of your loved one during the holidays.
Coralease Ruff, PhD, RN, is a Sun City Center bereavement facilitator, End of Life Nursing Educator, author and speaker. She notes that the anticipation of the holiday may be worse than the actual day.
“Knowing a bit about grief helps us to better cope with it,” Ruff said. “It is important to understand that grief is the normal and natural personal response to a loss [especially a death] of any kind. There is neither template nor timetable for grief, so each individual grieves in their unique way.”
Wendy Burkhard, LCSW, of Wyndbeach Counseling in Sun City Center, quotes author Zig Ziglar: “Grief is the recognition that you’ve lost someone you love. It’s the price you pay for loving someone, because if there were no love, there’d be no grief.’’
One good way to deal with grief is to learn everything there is to know about it, Ruff said. “The information we gather tells us what normal grief is and what can be expected. Knowledge is power and frees us to think and feel our own feelings. The griever can in turn understand their experiences and not judge themselves or others.
“Many well-meaning people feel uncomfortable with our sadness and want to help, but don’t know how. To deal with comments about ‘time to be over it,’ you could say, ‘thank you, but that isn’t helpful to me right now.’ More often, comments come from people who have not had similar losses.”
Ruff makes the following suggestions:
• First, acknowledge that the holidays may likely be difficult. Missing a loved one is felt more strongly during the holidays when families gather and everyone around us appears happy and joyful. Acknowledge your legitimate feelings as those you are entitled to. Find a trusted friend or a support group to share those feelings. Writing in a journal is also a way to get the feeling out.
• Do something to remember your loved one. Simple strategies can include lighting a candle, listening to their favorite music, looking at photos, attending a service at a house of worship or contributing to charity in their memory.
• Give yourself permission to do what you want to do this holiday and have a flexible plan. You might want a quiet low-key day with a trusted friend, some time alone, or to get away from it all. A short trip is helpful in changing the scenery and one’s perspective.
• Allow for a wide range of feelings and activities that may come in quick succession. Tears, when they come, are a natural part of the grieving process and are therapeutic. Don’t fight them or try to hide them. It is also okay to have fun. Give yourself permission to laugh and enjoy yourself when you can.
• Be kind to yourself, get adequate sleep and rest, eat properly, do deep breathing and stretching. Make a special effort to exercise. Exercising not only gets the blood circulating but elevates the mood.
• Develop new traditions. Change your activity gradually.
• Another way to cope with the holidays while grieving is to reach out and help someone else. This can include volunteering time, or assisting a sick or shut-in neighbor or friend. This gives the griever someone or something else to focus on. Reaching out to help others helps in our personal healing.
• Seeking support is important all year and can be especially helpful during holidays. Join with others who might be in a similar situation.
Certified Professional Life Coach Sandra McCaw, R.N., Ed.S., recommends above all that you change your holiday routine. “Don’t focus on the empty chair,” she says. “Instead, set up a buffet, go out to eat or arrange a potluck meal.”
Finally, Burkhard, who runs support groups locally, offers this acronym for Grief:
Gather old photos and mementos that celebrate the life of your loved one. Give them to others who share your loss.
Reminisce about good times spent together.
Insulate yourself from those who tell you to move on. Inner thoughts of those who have passed: cherish good memories.
Enjoy the present. Embrace the past.
Family and friends keep close. Forever can be kept alive.