HOW DO I DEAL WITH GRIEF AND LOSS OVER THE HOLIDAYS?
The holidays can be a time of togetherness celebrating with friends and family, reflecting on the year behind us and exploring our hopes and dreams for the year ahead. They can also be a challenging time of year for many, particularly those of us dealing with loss and grief. Loss and grief may come in many forms: the death of a family member or friend, going through a divorce, receiving a difficult health diagnosis, or the loss of a family pet, to name just a few. Our loss can be recent, or it can be one that we have been dealing with for several years. The impact will be much the same. In this post, we will focus on feelings of grief and loss following a death, although a lot of the concepts and coping strategies translate to other forms of loss as well.
As we celebrate the holidays this year, we can’t help but compare them to previous years and notice everything that has changed. We might look around the table and see the faces that are missing. We might think of the year ahead and feel sadness that our loved one will not be here to share it with us, or guilt that we are here without them. We might feel like the rest of the world has moved on, where this is simply not an option for us. These feelings of loss and grief might also remind us of all the other losses we have experienced over the course of our lives.
Finding Ways to Survive and Thrive This Holiday Season
Before we get into some ways to help understand loss and grief during the holidays, I wanted to take a moment and tell you that what you are feeling is perfectly normal. Love does not end with death, and grief is not a problem to be solved. It is something that we can grow around, an experience that can be carried, if we are given the tools to build a life alongside our loss instead of being pressured to make that loss disappear. On that note, what works for one person may not work for another, and that is okay. The circumstances around your loss are unique, and your grieving styles are unique. It is all about finding what works for you.
Tip # 1: Lean In To Your Grief
One of the hardest things when dealing with grief is feeling like the rest of the world has moved on and gone back to normal. This can show up in a lot of ways during the holidays. People might stop talking about your loved one and stop saying their name, whereas the sounds, sights and smells all around you trigger memories of them. People might pressure you to resume holiday traditions that feel empty or meaningless without your loved one. People might encourage you to join in the holiday spirit, whereas what you want to do most is to share what you’re going through in some way. At times, it might feel like you are living in a different reality from the people around you.
During such times it can be helpful to remember that it’s okay for things to be different. In fact, things are supposed to be different. Loss changes us, and there is no going back – there is only going forward. Grief comes as a result of giving and receiving love. It is perfectly normal and part of the grieving process to hold space for our feelings during the holidays.
Some ways that you can lean into your grief include:
Changing holiday traditions or creating new ones.
Finding big and small ways to celebrate the memory of your loved one and include them in the holiday season.
Talking to those friends and relatives who will listen to your feelings of grief without judging you. Ignoring your grief won’t make the pain go away, but talking about it openly can make you feel better.
For 24/7 help, ConnexOntario can offer free mental health support that is confidential. They can help by listening, offering support, and provide strategies to work through your circumstances. To contact them you can call 1-866-531-2600 or online chat through their site.
Tip #2: Self-Soothing During Feelings of Overwhelm
It can be helpful to remember that grief often comes in waves. There will be moments where you actively touch your grief, moments where you need to step away from it to engage in some self- soothing or distraction strategies, and moments where you give yourself permission to feel happy or at peace during the holidays and beyond. These are all important parts of the grieving process.
While we do need to slowly feel our feelings in order to grieve fully, “grief bursts” (sudden, intense feelings of grief triggered by an expected or unexpected reminder of our loved one; normal but painful) can happen along the way. These often happen on their own timeline and not always in a place where it feels safe to explore our emotions.
Some examples of things that can help us soothe the overwhelm brought on by grief bursts, and holiday events in general, include:
Taking a time-out; for example, going to the bathroom to wash your hands
Engaging in a distracting, comforting activity; for example, making a cup of tea
Taking some deep belly breaths, or trying a grounding exercise
Squeezing a stress ball or touching something soft; putting on hand cream
Going outside, even if it’s just on our balcony or porch, and looking at something far away and then something up close
Interacting with a pet
Listening to music or watching a YouTube video
Tip #3: Conserve Your Energy
Grieving is work, and at times it be exhausting. People are often surprised at how much energy it takes just to get up and get through the day. That is because grief affects you on a physical, cognitive and emotional level. During the holidays, it can be helpful to notice and respect your limits. This might look like ordering in takeout instead of cooking an elaborate meal for New Year’s Eve, or turning down invitations to loud, boisterous gatherings and suggesting meeting up with family members and friends in smaller, more peaceful environments instead. It might look like eliminating unnecessary stress or delaying certain decisions until the new year. Lastly, it might look like physically moving slower through the world, doing less and being kinder to yourself.
Tip #4: When Someone Asks, “How are you?”
Our society does not always handle death and grief well. People who are grieving have described things said to them after the death of their loved one that they did not find helpful and, in some cases, they found to be quite hurtful. This often has more to do with the other person’s comfort (or lack thereof) with grief and death, or it can be a clumsy attempt at offering support and encouragement.
“How are you?” is a particularly difficult question to answer. In the midst of your own pain and confusion, you might feel put on the spot to report on your progress and manage other peoples’ feelings and expectations. It’s a question you might not know how to answer. The reality of grief is that sometimes right after the loss, we feel strong, but as time passes, and the reality of life without that person settles in, we feel weak and weepy. And it’s awkward to talk about.
Below are some examples of responses to difficult questions you might find people asking you over the holidays, which I hope can help guide you in scripting your own. It can be helpful to remember that people often do want to support you, but just don’t know how, and that explaining your needs does not take away from the love and support that you will receive.
“How are you?”
“Thanks for asking. Honestly, it is hard, and I find it helps to talk about my memories of my loved one. Do you have some time to listen?”
“That looks like a sweater so-and-so used to have. Oh, sorry about that.”
“Sometimes people worry that bringing them up will make me sad, but it actually helps to hear people say their name, so please keep doing it.”
“It’s been six months. You need to get over this.”
“You might have taken less time to recover from your own loss, and so it might seem like I’m taking a long time, but I’m just taking the time I need for myself.”
“It’s not healthy to drag things on like this.”
“I appreciate your concern. It helps to know people are thinking of me. I’m grieving in my own way on my own time.”
“I know you’re having a hard time, but we really need to get ready to sell the house.”
“I’m not ready to sort through their things just yet. Thanks for your patience. I know it needs to be done and I’ll get there, so can you ask me again in a few weeks?”
“Please let me know if there is anything I can do.”
“One of the hardest things is the loneliness. I’d find it helpful to be invited out to things or to have someone with me to visit the cemetery. Can you help with any of those things?”
We Are Always Here for You
You can always call or email us and we can get you booked in for a session to discuss feelings of loss and grief over the holidays and beyond.
Thanks for reading,
Marina Machado (RSW, MSW)