Even in the best of times the holidays can be stressful, but they’re especially difficult when you’ve experienced a loss. Divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of health, job loss or loss of a pet can all bring about significant changes to our lives in one way or another and all can cause grief and deep sadness. We grieve because we love and love is part of who we are and why we were created. The following are some ways to manage grief during the holidays.
Acknowledgement and acceptance
Unfortunately there is no way around it; certain parts of the holidays will be hard. For most people the holidays represent countless memories accumulated during a lifetime, and while remembering can be difficult, it can also be healing to focus on the good and joyful memories. The truth is, you might feel sadness, but you’ll also feel peace, joy, guilt, confusion, happiness, anger and a range of other normal emotions. You will flash back and forth through many feelings, often several of them at once. It’s helpful to acknowledge and accept that this will happen and that the holidays will be different and likely difficult and that this is okay and to be expected. Acknowledging and accepting our emotions will actually help them pass more quickly than pushing them away.
Be intentional about your plans during the holidays. Grief makes it harder for us to concentrate and remember things. When you have a lot going on during the holidays making lists can help, even if you aren’t typically a list-maker. Writing things on the calendar, either on a traditional paper calendar or in your phone calendar or setting alarms in your phone is also helpful if you need reminders. Also, communicate ahead of time with the people with whom you will spend the holidays. Discuss ways you can support one another during this time and decide which traditions you want to keep and what, if anything, you’d like to change. Consider creating a new tradition in memory of your loved one, or it may be of more comfort to keep everything the same. Regardless, make sure everyone is in agreement about traditions and plans, particularly any changes that will be made. Remember that not everyone will be grieving the same way you are and the way others want to spend the holidays may not be how you want to spend the holidays. This is okay, there is no way to do grief “wrong.” Be open to other’s ideas and brainstorm ways to make the holidays easier. Small things can take a lot of energy when you are grieving so give each other permission to opt out of things. If you’re spending the holidays alone or with people far removed from your loss, use a notebook and complete a plan on your own.
Take care of yourself
It’s okay to take care of yourself and to be intentional about it. Set aside time in your schedule (an hour here or there) to pause for your mental, emotional and spiritual health. This might include, praying, journaling, taking a hot bath, reading your favorite scripture, listening to music, reading a book or doing other things you find calming and comforting. Taking care of yourself also includes doing things that help you feel connected to others like spending time with people you love, grabbing coffee with a friend or volunteering at church or in your community. However, don’t forget that part of taking care of yourself during this time includes prioritizing so don’t overcommit. The holidays are filled with so many parties, dinners, and events it’ll be important to save your energy for those events that are most meaningful to you. Look at everything you have to do and rank them in order of importance. Plan for the most important and skip the rest. You might consider minimizing (or forgoing altogether) decorations or gift giving. After a death or other loss, material things can seem less meaningful and the shopping malls can feel even more stressful than they already to during the holidays. It’s best to talk as a family and decide whether you truly want to decorate or exchange gifts this year. Listen to yourself, communicate with your family, and do what works for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and say yes to help when it’s offered.
Look for small joys
The holidays will be tough, but there will also be love and joy. Allow yourself to feel those emotions as well, allow yourself to be happy. There is nothing selfish about celebrating or feeling joy. Feeling happy doesn’t diminish how much you love and miss the person who isn’t there this holiday season. Being “in the moment” can also be helpful in allowing you to feel joy. When you hear the laughter of children, focus on how good that feels. When you eat, really taste it. In the moment, food tastes good, and in that moment, you’re outside your grief. Above all, don’t feel guilty for the joy you do find this holiday season. That capacity for joy is what connects us to each other.
When it’s more than grief
Despite all this, if it feels impossible to imagine the holidays as anything but unbearable, you might consider that you’re experiencing clinical depression. Symptoms of depression include sadness, loss of enjoyment, loss of energy, feelings of hopelessness or excessive guilt, difficulty concentrating, change of appetite and sleep habits (too much or not enough), and thoughts of death or suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, don’t be afraid to seek medical advice from your health care provider. The counselors at Lighthouse Counseling can also help you process through grief and any resulting depression you might experience.
Finally, remember that grief is a natural response to loss and you can heal with the support of others, so draw close to family and friends, connect with a support group, speak with a counselor and seek comfort from your faith, but above all, don’t do grief alone.