Managing Grief Through the Holiday Season
By: Nancy Tikunoff, IMH
Ah, the holiday season is upon us. The celebrations of life and love with family and friends are ushered in from the harried pace of life with the Thanksgiving respite and much feasting. Close on its heels the attention turns to the Christmas season which, again, is closely associated with family, community and relationships. The merrymaking continues till the end of the year with one last hoorah for closing out the year and ringing in a new one. Again, times replete with gatherings of those we love who are an integral part of our lives.
But then something so unexpected (or maybe expected but nevertheless dreaded) occurs, an event that seems so out of keeping with the laughter, joy, activities and traditions that define the holiday season for us. The accident no one saw coming. The sudden, unexpected illness or a long-term battle with aging finally ends omeone we love dies or it’s the anniversary of the death of someone that we love and miss dearly. They are no longer here to participate in all those things we enjoyed and found comfort in doing together at this season. All too quickly, what was a time of excitement, great memories and forward-looking good times has become lackluster at best and agonizing at its worst. All of a sudden, the beautiful turning colors of the fall leaves now just look like something that used to be alive, green leaves that have now died. The first chill in the air seems much colder than it used to be. The twinkling lights almost seem to be tears instead of bright, cheery decorations on the tree. Death has shown up uninvited and unwanted at a most inopportune time.
One of the most heart-rending experiences that I ever had was working with a Survivors of Suicide support group during the holiday season. I remember one person in particular had lost an adult child a few days earlier to a violent suicide. Her pain was so wrenching that she reminded me of the biblical story of Job, who sat mute, unable to even speak for a week due to his overwhelming, crushing pain. As much as she desired to sleep throughout the entire holiday season and be awakened when it was all over, she couldn’t. When a tragedy occurs, we must acknowledge that it has happened because life won’t let us do otherwise. Bereavement is a normal response to the death of someone we care about with feelings of sadness, tears and crying being appropriate reactions. Our beloved has transitioned to another address and we cannot bring them back or change the timing of their departure. Because the world doesn’t stop for us, even though it seems like it surely should, we have to keep moving even if it’s at a very slow pace. How does one survive the death or death anniversary of a beloved that has died during the holiday season? Here are a few ideas that hopefully will ease your journey through the holiday season, if not your pain.
Self-care is key.
You are vulnerable and it is time to handle yourself with care. Prepare as much as you are able to for going through all that the season entails. Activate your support system (family, friends, church members, neighbors, grief support groups) and call on them.
Being around family and friends
Pace yourself. Plan some time alone but also some time with others. A balance of both will probably meet your needs best.
Don’t be caught off guard if you are subjected to insensitive remarks or misguided actions of others. For example, people may treat you differently because your situation causes them discomfort. Your loss has reminded them of the uncomfortable fact that we are all vulnerable to loss just like you were.
If you were a couple, you may now find other couples uncomfortable sitting with you or inviting you to outings.
Plan to take your own vehicle. That way you can leave when you’ve had enough.
Arrange with the host/hostess beforehand a place you can go to be alone if you become overwhelmed.
Communicate your desires to guests. If it’s okay to sit in “his/her chair” invite others to do so. If you want to talk about the deceased, say so or do so.
Acknowledge the deceased’s missed absence; that there’s an empty place at the table this year but they will always be an important part of your life.
Initiate an activity to remember the beloved – have guests share a favorite memory of them or light a candle in their honor.
In making decisions about holiday decorating, do whatever you need or don’t need to do. If he/she always put up the tree and you just can’t bring yourself to get it out of storage, you don’t have to. Keep it simple by downsizing - maybe a table top tree will suffice this year. Families including grandchildren can respect your sadness and lack of desire to celebrate. If they don’t understand, most of them will give you grace and be able to get past it because of their love and respect for you. Your heart is broken and it’s okay to let that show.
The same rule applies for the expected traditional holiday meal that everyone is accustomed to enjoying. There’s no rule that says you can’t change things up this year – have the guests bring dishes instead of you doing all the cooking. Order the meal and have it prepared from a local grocery store or catering service. Create a new tradition this year – have Mexican or Italian food if it takes the sting out of the meal tradition for you. If family insists on having the usual decorations and meal preparation, then ask them to take care of it for you because you are not up to it.
Honor the deceased person.
There are a multitude of ways to incorporate the honored memory of the deceased into holiday celebrations.
- Attend a memorial. Many community agencies (funeral homes, hospice, hospital, churches) now offer annual remembrance services to honor deceased loved ones.
- Gift a donation in memory of your beloved rather than give gifts to each other.
- Create a tree ornament with “message gifts” that the loved one would have given if they were alive. For example, a small note inside an ornament that says “From John to Kim. I give you my love this year and wish you joy and happiness for the New Year. Always, John.”
Dose your grief.
Allow yourself to fully cry and grieve for 10 minutes during your day then go back to your activities. Feeling and experiencing the pain of grief is necessary for a complete healing; however the pain can be titrated or doled out in manageable pieces so that you are not constantly overwhelmed. While you don’t always have control over when emotions come crashing in, often times, you can. Take advantage of those times.
When Grief Goes Astray
Some types of death increase the pain of the loss because of the nature of the death. Situations such as death by suicide or homicide that involve the legal system or multiple losses at once in an accident or over a short period of time can complicate a person’s grief process. In addition, the sudden or violent nature of a loved one’s death can rock our world to the core. Bereavement is a normal response to a valued loss. However, if a grieving person finds that they are experiencing a deepening depression or wracked with unrelenting guilt or shame it is time to seek out professional assistance. Counseling and coaching will provide tools that can help you rediscover your equilibrium in life.
Some helpful resource links for you:
healgrief.org (has a section regarding loss of pets)
taps.org(specializes in military deaths/survivors)
https://www.dukehealth.org/sites/www.dukemedicine.org/files/mourners_bill_of_rights.pdf (The Mourners Bill of Rights)
About Nancy: Having experienced a deep grief experience early in life as a result of the sudden, unexpected death of my boyfriend in a vehicle-train accident during the holiday season, I know the deep, prolonged sorrow that the death of a beloved can bring with the added pain of having it occur during the holidays. As such, I feel compassion for others of all ages who are on the grieving journey and I advocate for the bereaved to care for themselves well and allow their healing to take place at their own pace. If you find that you need professional assistance in your grief process, I would be privileged to assist you.
Nancy is a Registered Nurse, a Professional Life Coach and a therapist. She holds a Master’s Degree in Health and Wellness and a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing as well as a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling. Please contact Nancy by email to make an appointment at: LifeWorksgroup@aol.com or by calling 407-647-7005. You can read Nancy’s biography at www.lifeworksgroup.org under Blogs.