Surviving the Holiday Season In the Midst of Grief
Making it Through the Holidays When You're Grieving
The whole world seems consumed with merry-making, every place filled with decorations and lights and people fairly oozing with holiday spirit. The holidays can make those of us who are bereaved and grieving even more painfully aware of the terrible hole in our hearts--if that's possible. It can certainly seem that way during the holiday season.
Bereavement is the state of being deprived of, or having lost, something precious to us. Grief is our reaction, experience and feeling, in response to that loss. Grief is a normal and healthy response to the death of loved one. Mourning is the outward expression of the feeling of grief. To mourn is to openly acknowledge our feelings and experiences of grief. Actively mourning during the holiday season can be a way of helping us to cope with our grief.
Particularly for the newly bereaved, openly acknowledging your grief and pain during the coming holiday season can help you make it through, and perhaps help you find some comfort and possibly even joy. Some ways of doing this include finding ways to honor the memory of your loved one while being honest with yourself, your family, and friends about what you need during the holiday season. Spend some time thinking about your family’s traditions and practices during the holiday season and imagine what those will be like this year without your loved one. This exercise will be painful, but it will help you to decide what you may need to make it through, and what things may need to change, for the fast approaching holiday season.
Make a Plan
Know, without a doubt, that the holidays will be difficult and painful. It can be incredibly helpful to make a plan to do some things differently. Make a plan that will include your loved one; his or her name, memories, and stories, in conversations and activities. Acknowledge her presence in your life, and your ongoing love, as well as the pain you feel due to the terrible absence of your beloved. Create new traditions, such as lighting a candle or saying a prayer, for your loved one at a particular time of day or day of the week. You can do this on your own, at family gatherings, or both. You might wish to donate to a charity in your loved one’s name, plan a visit to the cemetery, watch her favorite holiday movie, listen to his favorite songs, engage in activities that honor his or her life and memory.
You may wish to develop more than one plan. Plan A might include joining in family celebrations, plan B might include acknowledgment that, if plan A is too difficult, you will give yourself permission to stay home, or to leave early. Let it be ok to change your traditions and activities. In some cases, you may decide to cancel the holiday altogether. Let this be ok too, if that is what you need. Everyone is different and we all grieve and mourn differently. Some bereaved people find comfort in the routine and traditions of the holidays, while others simply feel they cannot face the holidays this year with so much pain and sorrow in their hearts. Whatever your personal needs, have a plan for how you will manage the holiday and plan for a specific activity that you will do on the actual holiday, as well as at important family gatherings. If you decide not to go with the plan you have made once the holiday arrives, this is ok too, but do have a plan. Bereaved and grieving people who do not plan for the holidays and other important days can have a much more difficult time getting through those significant times than those who do have a plan—even if they decide not to follow the plan.
It is far better to prepare for the holidays than to pretend they don't exist. Even if your plan includes pretending they don't exist, having a plan will help you through. It is true that the day is only a number on a calendar, but our culture is filled with symbols, advertising, Hallmark specials, decorations, merry makers and all number of reminders which are tied to our emotions and memories. Our inner experience is nearly impossible to escape. Putting on blinders rarely is the answer.
Do you have plans for honoring, remembering and memorializing your loved one this holiday season? Do you have a plan for maintaining your own well-being during these next few months? Do you have support and an outlet for sharing your thoughts and feelings? Do you have people who will listen to you without judgment or advice about what you "should" or "should not" do? These questions all bear thinking about and the answers will help you make it through this difficult season.
Along with giving yourself permission to do things differently, give yourself permission to have some pleasure as well. It’s ok to laugh or smile, even through your sadness. Those things do not weaken your connection to your loved one, neither do they mean that you do not care, or that you are not grieving.
Our loved ones and their memories, will forever be a part of our lives, whether they are physically present or not. Learning how to navigate not only the difficult terrain of the holiday season, but the landscape of the rest of our lives, is sadly, part of the task of survivors. Having a plan will help.
I wish you peace for this upcoming season and hope for some comfort, through this difficult time.
How to Make a Plan
Taking the time to come up with a plan for how you will deal with the holiday season may be very painful, but having a plan will be one of the best things you can do for yourself to help yourself manage the pain of this upcoming season. Very early in grief, friend of mine whose daughter died told me, "Have a plan. You don't have to stick to the plan, but have it anyway." It may be the single best piece of advice given to me as a bereaved parent. It is the one and only piece of advice I myself give to other bereaved people. I generally stay away from advice giving, but that one piece of advice is worth giving--and following.
Tips for Coming up With Your Plan:
Spend some time thinking about how you and your family, or you and your loved one usually spend the holiday. These questions may be useful to consider: What family traditions occur year after year? What do you think those traditions and rituals will be like this year without your loved one? How will you cope?
Make some decisions about your family's holiday traditions. Perhaps make a list of ones you think you might want to participate in. Also make a list of those you think you cannot face this year--And a list of ones you maybe, might want or be able to participate in. Do this mentally, or with pen and paper, whatever feels better for you. Writing things down can help your mind to stop its whirling and jumping from one topic to the next. If you can, I suggest writing these things down.
Think of ways you can honor your loved one in existing family traditions.
Think of new ways to honor your loved one.
Decide whether you'd like to involve other family members.
It's ok to have several different ways to include your loved one; some may just be for you, others may involve family and friends.
Give yourself permission to grieve, to mourn, and to be exactly where you are in grief.
Give yourself permission to have pleasure and to have some fun if that is what is happening. If you find yourself having fun or laughing, let this be okay.
Give yourself permission to be flexible.
Identify your support system and let them know you may need extra help.
Have plans A,B,C, etc., if you need to.
Think of code word to use with a friend or other support person when you have had enough. And decide ahead of time what it will mean when you the code word--will it mean, "I need a break. Please cover for me while I go to the bathroom and cry." Or will it mean, "I need to get out of here right the #&@% now!" ?
Include self-care in your plan--massage, walks, relaxing baths, exercise, arts, crafts, sleep, engaging in your favorite hobby, or other activities that make you feel good, calmer, more relaxed.
Know that it's ok to not follow your plan or to change it anytime you want.
Please feel free to look over, print, and use the Make a Plan Worksheets below to help in managing the difficult holiday season. You may find that these can help focus your thoughts as you grieve and move through the holidays.