Healthy Grieving: The empty chair—Managing grief during the holidays

By Victor Parachin

If I’d had my druthers for Christmas, I would have put a paper bag over my head on December 1, crawled under the bed and hidden out until Christmas was over. Fred, my husband of 17 years, had died in April, and I could hardly stand the thought of Advent, with its talk about hope and expectation, let alone the holly-jolly joy-to-the-world celebration of Christmas. Grief can debilitate a person in ordinary times. In extraordinary times, such as the holidays, it can obliterate.

Those words were written by the Reverend Mary Cartledgehayes, a United Methodist minister. Her experience is a common one among those who grieve the death of a loved one in December. While others are lighthearted, festive and joyful, the bereaved struggle with December, a month that is filled with many celebrations. Here are four strategies for managing grief during the holidays.

1) Focus on the life lived…rather than only the death. Holiday joy can be elevated, while holiday sadness can be lowered simply by placing attention on memories of times together. After Ann Compton’s daughter, Laurie Ann, was murdered, her mother didn’t change a single thing in her daughter’s room and spent the next 10 years in hard grieving. Her despair was so deep and all-consuming that Compton was planning suicide. Fate intervened when she was invited to appear on a television program with American psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw. As she spoke about her loss, Dr. Phil offered an insight that changed Compton’s life: “Your daughter lived 18 vibrant and wonderful years, yet you’re focusing on the day of her death rather than celebrating the event of her life.” Recognizing the wisdom, Compton shed tears of relief saying, “I never thought of it that way before!”

2) Be real and be flexible. The first holiday after a loved one has died definitely will be different. You and your family should acknowledge and accept this but then be flexible about how you will celebrate. Bereavement authority Dr. Alan Wolfelt and author of Healing Your Holiday Grief: 100 Ideas For Blending Mourning And Celebration, offers these insights: “Because you’re in mourning this year, you may not feel like ‘doing’ the holidays at all. That’s an understandable thought. But your family’s holiday traditions are an important part of your shared history as well as your continuing lives. You may find yourself wanting to celebrate as you always have for memories sake. You might also consider simplifying your holiday rituals, instead of abandoning them altogether. Keep the traditions that matter most to you and set the others aside, at least for now.”

3) Ask for help. Remind yourself of these two realities: First, you’re grieving, and grieving is exhausting. Second, there are people in your life who want to be helpful. The holiday is an ideal time to ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with getting some assistance. Rachel Kodanaz, author of Living With Loss: One Day At A Time, notes: “Why is it so difficult to ask for help? The truth is people around you want to help so desperately. They would do anything to lessen the pain in your heart and the stress the loss has created. They ask you to call if you need anything, but you are reluctant to call. I would gently suggest you try keeping a list of tasks you could use some assistance with, and next time your friends call and ask what they can do for you, look at your list and ask for help.”

4) Develop your spiritual side. The holidays revolve around religious themes, so use this month to nurture yourself in spiritual ways such making more time for prayer, meditation, worship attendance, spiritual direction, going on a brief retreat or spending a day in silence.
Holidays can be difficult and dark, or they can bring light and love. The difference is always the attitude and intention you bring to the month. Maintain a positive vision for December.

Victor M. Parachin, M. Div., is a bereavement educator and grief counselor.
He is the author of numerous books about grief.

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