Coping with Holiday Grief

Sad Boy Looking Out Window
Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Holidays are often a time to spend with family. For many bereaved people, it is a glaring reminder that an empty chair now exists where it was previously filled with their loved ones physical presence.

Holidays abound with planning, preparation and pleasure. Tradition and seasonal events are anticipated excitedly all year long. The hustle and bustle of the season for families who have suffered the loss of one of their beloved members often leaves grievers desiring a moratorium on the holidays. Melancholy, loneliness and grief are in sharp contrast to the expectation of the season. There is little energy to meet the expected demands imposed by one’s self and by others.

It is not uncommon to experience strong grief reactions this time of year. Many grievers face the same challenges. Some scratch their heads and wonder, “What it is that makes this time of year so challenging?” Sights, smells and sounds can trigger memories of happier times and years gone by. The hippocampus in our brain houses all these memories, good and bad. It is as if we open up this box of memories along with the stored holiday items, then pack them away at the end of the season until the next year, when they creep out of the storage boxes once again in a cyclic fashion.

As promised in the November article, my hope is to provide you with some concrete ideas and suggestions to help you navigate this time of year. 

Shifting our perspective regarding expectations can be helpful. It can be a time of deep reflection of the wonderful gifts our loved one brought to our lives. The love and fond memories of those lost are gifts that can never be taken away. Though our loved ones physical body may no longer be with us, we can reflect on the joy they brought into others' lives and our own. Though your heart may be heavy with sorrow, there is also room for joy as well. But how do we tap into that joy?

Ways to Honor

One mother sent a holiday letter requesting help from her family and friends. She included instructions and a self-addressed stamped envelope. She asked each recipient to write down a memory of her loved one and return it. The sealed note would then be placed in the loved one’s Christmas stocking to be opened on Christmas morning. To the mother’s delight, she read note after note describing things about her child she was reminded of or never knew. What she received was the gift of knowing others had not forgotten and that her child was not only fun, but naughty and nice and loved by many. She had raised a beautiful human being. This was the greatest gift of her holiday, self-directed and fulfilled by wonderful people who gave when asked. 

Another family took a photo of their family for their annual holiday card showing the father holding the picture of their son who had died the previous year. This sent a powerful message that their loved one was not forgotten to anyone who received the holiday card.

There is no manual called "How to Grieve" or "How to Help Others Grieve." We need to help others understand what we need. Creating new traditions can be healing medicine for a broken heart.

Ways to Avoid

Give yourself permission to do less. If there is ever a time to pass on some activities, it is when you are grieving. Let people know you appreciate an invitation. Reply that you may not be sure about how you will feel at the time of the event and ask them not to take offense if you can’t come at the last minute. Let them know this time of year is difficult for you. Most people are very supportive and understanding. When others see that you are committed to caring for yourself, they will also care for you throughout your healing process.

Some families go away for the holidays, totally avoiding them until they have more tools to cope, as well as strength and energy.

Simplify gift giving. A bereaved wife just couldn’t bring herself to go to the mall where she and her husband always shared the gift buying experience together. She asked her sister to pick up and wrap a few gifts for her children.For the rest of her family and friends, she purchased animals from a third world country through mail order.Her husband had loved animals, and the company sent gift notices to all recipients.

Self Care

Minimize sugar and alcohol, and drink lots of water. Sleep and rest when tired; Get at least eight hours of sleep at night. Focus on the spiritual side of the holiday. Be reflective. Give thanks. Make a gratitude list.  Spend time with people who also had a special relationship with your loved one. Ask others to mention his or her name. Leave a flameless candle lit throughout the holidays to represent the light that still shines from your loved one. Attend a candle lighting ceremony in your community held at many churches, hospitals, hospice foundations and funeral homes. The Compassionate Friends holds worldwide candle lighting events on the second Sunday of December at 7 p.m.

Be gentle with yourself, allowing feelings of sorrow. Let yourself weep, as well as experience new joy, allowing yourself laughter without guilt. Give yourself the gift of time and patience. Self nurture. It takes work to learn how to live in the world again without someone we dearly love. 

I wish you peace this holiday season.

SUDEP Institute Bereavement Support Facilitator Linda Coughlin Brooks RN, BSN, CT, contributes regular articles as part of our bereavement support services. Contact her at sudep@efa.org. Learn more about our support for the bereaved.

Authored by: Linda Coughlin Brooks RN, BSN, CT on 12/2014

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