It's that time of year again. Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks have rolled out their festive holiday cups. Stores are filled with holiday decorations and pine tree scents. Radios have begun playing holiday music. Santa has already arrived in some locations for photos. Families are starting to post and send their Christmas cards (not mine though - we can't get our act together that quickly!). Turkeys are on sale and people are planning out their pie baking schedule. All around us are the sights, sounds and smells of the holidays. Such a wonderful and joyous time of the year. Right?
Not for everyone.
For many people, the winter holidays are excruciatingly painful. Either they have recently lost a loved one and this will be their first holiday season without them or the holiday season is a sad reminder of their lost loved one. When they see all the happy, smiling faces on Christmas cards, they are reminded that their loved one won't be on any cards this season. That adorable, heart-warming commercial with the cheerful family seated around the Thanksgiving dinner table makes them realize there will be an empty chair at their own Thanksgiving table this year. While perusing their local Target, a holiday sale banner catches their eye and they see "the" perfect gift for their loved one, forgetting for just a split second that there will be no gift exchange with their lost loved one this year.
Maybe you know these people. You probably do. Think about your friends, your family, your coworkers. How many of them lost someone within the past year? How many lost a very important person ever and might ache for them throughout the holiday season?
Maybe this person is you and you find yourself dreading the holiday season.
For those of us living in parts of the country where the sun sets earlier, leaving us in darkness from 4:30pm on, the nights can start to feel painfully long and lonely this time of year. The colder weather forces us indoors, encouraging us to hibernate. But if you have recently lost a loved one, the longer nights, colder temperatures and holidays on the horizon can all add up to a deep, dark sadness.
Whether you are the one hurting this holiday season or you know someone for whom the holidays are difficult, there are some tips to help you manage the grief that is often so palpable this time of year.
How to survive the holiday season when you are grieving
1. Honor your loved one
So often our society pressures us to "move on," "heal," "find closure," or "let go" of our loved ones. Those messages are wrong. We shouldn't be letting go; we should be finding new ways to hold on to them, hold onto our memories of them and find a new way to feel connected to them. Spend some time thinking about how best to honor your loved one this season. It could be as simple as lighting a candle or hanging a special ornament on your tree. Maybe it's volunteering to feed the homeless, host a toy drive for children or sponsoring a family for Christmas. Go to their favorite restaurant. Cook their famous side dish. Wear their necklace. Stop trying to forget them. Instead, embrace your memories of them. Talk about them. Say their name and say it often.
2. Allow yourself to feel
It's amazing how connected our senses are to our emotions. Just a certain smell in the air or a song on the radio can take us back to another time in our life. The holidays can do this too. Don't be surprised if you find yourself more emotional than usual. If you need to cry, cry. If you you need to express some anger, take up kickboxing or scream into a pillow. Seriously. Let out your emotions. If you try to bottle up all of your feelings, they probably will escape at the most inopportune times - like when your child spills his glass of apple juice, someone cuts you off on the highway or that lady in front of you tries to sneak 13 items into the 12 item or less express line at the grocery store. Feeling all of your emotions doesn't make you weak; it makes you human.
3. Be social...or don't
It's normal to not want to celebrate at all during the holidays after a loss. Seeing so many people laughing and filled with joy can feel surreal when your world is still spinning uncontrollably after a loss. If you don't want to attend some of the holiday functions, don't. You know yourself best. One word of caution, however: isolation after a loss can lead to depression and complicated grief. Sometimes it's good to force yourself to socialize, just a little. When you do accept an invitation somewhere, though, give yourself an escape route to use if things suddenly feel too much.
4. Speak up
For many people, their support networks kick into hyper drive following a loss. Phone calls, texts, visits, casseroles and cards are pouring in almost non-stop immediately following the death. But after the funeral, those types of support can suddenly come to a crashing halt. Do people suddenly stop caring? No. Many people are uncomfrotable around grief and simply don't know what to say, what to do or how to act. So, they avoid. Don't be afraid to tell your support network what you need. It's ok to ask for specific things like invitiations to social events, regular phone calls, a visit, staying away for a while and even practical help with things like errands and child care. In most cases, your support network will be delighted to have been given a specific way to be useful and supportive for you.
5. Be kind to yourself
Watch for negative self-talk and talking down about yourself. Thinking or saying things like "I shouldn't be crying like this" "This shouldn't bother me so much" "What's wrong with me" only bring us down more. Be kind and understanding to yourself. Grief doesn't go away. It's always there inside you. You carry it around with you and sometimes it's heavier than other times. It's normal and it's ok. Recognize that it is normal for this time of year to be more painful and challenging and also look for the things and people that bring you hope. Do things that make you feel good and nurture yourself. Yoga. Walk. Exercise. Journal. Read. Play music. Listen to music. Start therapy. Attend a support group (see the end of this article for a link to some groups). Remember that you are human and deserve compassion - especially from yourself.
A note about children
Often, children know far more than we think they do and they become very skilled at a young age at suppressing some of their feelings. Believe me when I say that children, even infants, can feel loss and can grieve. But, many children have been given the message that it is not acceptable to show sadness, cry or verbalize their feelings around loss. So, when they wonder who will put the star on the Christmas tree this year now that mommy is gone or who will carve the turkey now that grandpa is gone, they might keep those questions to themselves. Just as many adults don't want to bring up a sad topic to their friend and make them cry, so too do children want to avoid being the one that makes their parents cry. So, check in with your children if they have also lost someone and encourage them to follow these same tips.
How to help a grieving friend during the holiday season
1. Be there
There are few things in life that can make you feel as powerless as watching someone you love have their heart broken. For many of us, we can only take so much time in that uncomfortable place before we need find something to distract ourselves. Rather than running away from the pain, try to lean in to that discomfort and be there for your friend. Acknowledge to them that you understand the holidays may be difficult for them. Remind them that you care about them and will be there for them. There are no magic words you can say to make things better. Just being there with them physically is sometimes magial enough.
2. Ask questions
Ask your friend what they need. Rather than saying "let me know if you need anything" or "I'm here if you need me," be brave and ask things like "What will be the hardest part of Thanksgiving for you?" or "What do you need to help you get through the season?" Encourage your friend to be honest with you about their needs.
3. Talk about their loved one
You did a double take when you read this one, right? For many of us, we have been conditioned to avoid talking about someone who has died. We don't want to upset our friends and remind them of their loss. We don't want to make their pain worse. Guess what? They probably are always thinking about their loved one. Their heart is always hurting. One of their biggest fears, especially if they are a parent who has lost a child, is that the world (and they, themselves) will forget their loved one. Say their name. If you knew them, talk about your memories of them. Talking about them will give your friend permission to also talk about them and doing so will help immensely with their grief process.
4. Include them
Even though your friend may not feel much like socializing at times, continue to extend invitations. Don't assume that just because they have declined your last four invitiations means they will never be interested in hanging out with you again. That 5th invitiation just may be the one that finally gets them out of their house.
5. Don't take it personal
When your friend turns down your invitiation to your Christmas party or backs out of your girls' night out at the last minute or doesn't return your text message right away, don't take it personal. Remember that the holidays aren't always the joyous, wonderful time that Hallmark makes them out to be. For some people, they are a sad reminder of those who are no longer with us.
***For a listing of local seminars on Surviving the Holidays, visit http://www.griefshare.org/holidays seminar
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About Changing Perspectives
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!