Managing grief during the holidays
Norman Rockwell’s painting of a festive family sitting around a holiday table may be an accurate image for many families. However, for those who have lost a loved one, the holiday season is anything but festive–pain is often magnified and loneliness accentuated, as they face a celebration accompanied only by memories. Here are ways to ease the blues and create happier holidays for yourself.
Plan ahead. Rather than stumble into December and be manipulated by the many events and pressures of the month, pause and plan for the best way to be engaged with holiday festivities. Conduct an examination of your feelings and thoughts by asking these types of questions:
* Who do I want to be with?
* Do I need to be at this event?
* Which person(s) would be best kept at a distance?
* How much money is realistic for me to spend?
* Which gatherings do I truly wish to participate in?
* What steps can I take to maintain balance this month?
* Do I really need to travel this long distance to be with family and friends?
Raising and responding to these types of inquiries will create holiday clarity and guide you to experience the month in a way which is most beneficial.
Give yourself a year off. There is no rule or social directive which states you “must” celebrate Christmas. If your grief is recent, fresh and overwhelming, consider just taking the year off. No tree, no decorating, no entertaining, no holiday cards. While you don’t need to justify yourself, a simple, “I need to be alone and quiet,” is a sufficient explanation. Also, you can let family and friends know you hope to celebrate next year.
Let others help. Even if you are accusomed to “doing it all” yourseslf, this year let others in on your grief and allow them to help. That advice comes from Dr. Harold Ivan Smith, author of A Decemberd Grief: Living With Loss While Others Are Celebrating. “You’re not the first person to wrestle with Christmas seasonal grief. What other grievers have learned firsthand may be insightful to you. Let people in on your grief. Consider them something of grief consultants. Let them help you put up decorations or accompany you to the cemetery or the mall. Ignore the temptation to mimic an independent minded three-year old and to declare, ‘I can do it myself.’”
Have an exit strategy. There may be some events you have interest in attending but hesitate because you aren’t sure if the participation will be pleasant or unpleasant. Consider giving it a try but have an exit strategy. For example, you could plan to go late, leave early, attend with a good friend or develop some reasons to leave a party such as, “I need to let the dog out” or “I have an early appointment tomorrow.” Also, keep an eye out for events that are drop-in, as those allow you to pace your visit, remaining briefly or lingering for a longer period of time.
Take a nap. Dr. Smith notes: “Tired, exhausted people complicate the holidays for others, if not also for themselves. A nap can be a wonderful gift to yourself. It is easy for some greivers, with long “to do” lists, to say, “Whose got time to nap?” The accurate response may be: you don’t have time not to nap. Do yourself—and the world—a big favor: take a nap.”
Focus on the life lived, rather than only the death. Holiday joy can be elevated, while holiday sadness 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 grieving hard. 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 to Dr. Phil and his television audience, 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!”
Help someone else. “Even when you’re in the midst of grief, you still have something to offer the world,” says Amy Morin, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker. “Performing a few acts of kindness can be really good for a grieving person’s spirit. Donate gifts to families in need, serve meals at a soup kitchen, or volunteer to help people at a nursing home make holiday crafts, if you’re up for it.”
Be positive about your future. It’s natural to think, “Is every holiday going to be like this?” Or, “Will I feel like this every December?” Here’s the reality: the vast majority of people who experience holiday grief recover and regain the joy of the holiday. They do not remain imprisoned by this one experience. So, remain hopeful and positive.
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