Handling Holiday Grief

With the winter holidays around the corner, those new to loss and grief may find the anticipation and isolation building up to them can be debilitating and confusing. The expectations may feel overwhelming, but the message of hope is this: you have choices.

Start by mindfully considering and writing a list of all of the traditions, duties, and expectations of the holiday season. For each one, consider these questions:
Why do you do it?
Does it matter where it’s done?
Does it matter how it’s done?
Does it matter who does it?
Do you want to change it?

To feel grounded through the process, consider the following Mourner’s Holiday Rights:
Create New Memories. If the thought of doing things the way they’ve always been done creates anxiety or seems too painful, open to the idea of changing holiday traditions. Send cards for a different holiday, order pizza instead of slaving over turkey, or celebrate at someone else’s house or maybe Hawaii! This allowance for change could develop into new traditions or simply provide relief for the first year of loss.

Have Support. Develop a system of support. Identify a trusted, empathetic outlet who can handle the intense emotions of grief. This might be a best friend, family member, support group, spiritual guide, or bereavement counselor. Express feelings about the holiday season and the loss without fear of judgment.

Time Out. You have the right to excuse yourself from other’s expectations during the holidays or even skip out on holiday celebrations altogether. You even have the right to change your mind! You might attempt to participate then back out when you’ve had enough, and that’s okay. Acknowledge limits with kindness and acceptance.

Acknowledge Your Deceased Loved One. The relationship to beloved family and friends does not cease with death. Find a unique way to include the deceased loved one in the holidays by making his or her favorite meal, lighting a memory candle, buying their favorite gift for someone else, or releasing message balloons on a cold day. Include loved ones in the brainstorming and memorial.
Have Fun. Yes, love, laughter, and living during the holidays despite the grief is also allowed. Many newly bereaved express guilt about living when loved ones have died. Your loved one would want you to live fully. Grief does not have to be a 24-hour-a-day job.

Rest, Exercise, Solitude. Taking care of the body and soul is critical for all during the holidays considering the stress, unhealthy food, and limited time. Be mindful about alcohol and food intake, as both can be abused as coping. Take time for exercise, quiet meditation or prayer, or engagement in an activity that brings joy. Fill up emotionally.

Be Prepared. You have the right to plan carefully how the holidays will be managed, including duties your loved carried out in life. Make family and friends aware of this plan and ask for support through it.

Do It Your Way. The winter holidays are about filling up the soul. This year is different than all others, so be mindful about what your needs are specifically in regards to this holiday season and the grieving soul.

Involve The Kids. If kids are in the picture, involve them in the discussion of how to celebrate the holidays. Kids often need reassurance knowing they are safe, so consider maintaining some traditions precious to the family. Help them hand make gifts and decorations instead of buying. Focus on your relationship to your children. Say the name of the deceased and let your kids know it’s okay to talk. Give and get lots of hugs.

Know You Are Not Alone. The bombardment of seasonal movies and songs frequently gives the impression that everyone has a happy, joyous holiday. The numerous parties, gifts, and abundant  decorations can be overwhelming. Comparing yourself with other people is natural, but can result in jealousy, resentfulness, and anger. Remember that many families, who are not grieving a recent death, also have difficulties with the holidays.

Leave a Light On. This might seem simple, but coming home to a dark home in the winter can be quite disheartening. The days are shorter, and nights are longer, so always leave a light on. There’s just something about a warm light that brings a glimmer of hope to the heart.

Sarah Jameson Webb, LCSW is the Grief Services Coordinator for Hospice of Southwest Montana, and facilitates a weekly grief group at the Cancer Support Community every Wednesday 5:30-7pm. She will lead a “Handling Holiday Grief” workshop November 20th at the Bozeman Public Library from 1:30-4pm. For more information, contact Sarah at (406) 522-1839.