Grief & The Holidays
Losing a loved one at any time of the year is hard. Holidays like Christmas and Hannukah and the celebrations that usher in the New Year can add another layer to that grief. “Christmas music, holiday parties, and festive decorations that were meant to bring joy served as painful reminders of my loss,” writes therapist Amy Morin, who experienced “that wave of grief in my own life when my husband passed away.”
The sights and sounds of the season are difficult to escape—they’re everywhere. The Hallmark Channel has Christmas movies running non-stop from October through the New Year. Every commercial on any channel seems to be holiday-related. And while you can easily turn off the TV, it’s not so easy to ignore the reminders that are present from the grocery store to the gas station to the mall. Not to mention the return of holiday beverages at Starbucks—peppermint mocha, anyone?
We live in a world where holiday decorations are in place before Halloween at many large retailers. All of which can trigger profound sadness when you’re missing your loved one, whether they died years ago, or the loss is more recent.
When Will I Feel Better?
If only I can make it through the holiday…if only I can make it to the New Year. Sometimes we put pressure on ourselves to “get over” it and we try to shake it off and return to normal. But this is your new normal, a world where your loved one is no longer here. And that takes time to wrap your head around.
Grief has no timetable for feelings of pain after loss, though it’s generally recognized that there are stages that people can go through, not necessarily in order. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross originally developed the five stages of grief as the process patients go through as they come to terms with a terminal illness: The stages—
- Depression, and
—were only later applied to grief after the loss of a loved one. In reality, grief “looks a lot less like a neat set of stages and a lot more like a roller coaster of emotions,” says David. B. Feldman Ph.D.
The more you try to avoid the feeling of sadness, the longer it might take to move forward. A little avoidance, however, can be a good thing, since it allows the brain to be able to handle grief in smaller doses, according to psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. Denial becomes problematic when reality is never faced.
A general rule is that the only way out of grief is through it. “But we shouldn’t feel we have to face (emotions) all at once, either. Grieving appropriately means allowing ample time to remember and feel the loss as well as embracing occasional opportunities to distract ourselves and regroup,” says Feldman.
It's OK To Celebrate. Or Not.
You are an individual. And your grief process is your own. “If you want to be alone, don’t be persuaded to join in another family’s Christmas, if you don’t really want to,” says Anne, who writes a blog about the death of her son. She recommends trying to find a happy medium between seeing friends and family but also spending time on your own.
Feeling guilty is a common reaction to the holidays because what if you find yourself enjoying spending time celebrating if only for a short while? It’s ok. It means you are, at least for an hour or two, arising out of your grief to find joy. It doesn’t mean you miss them less or are forgetting what they meant to you. It means you are human.
Experiencing things like joy “can feel like a betrayal to deceased loved ones – but it’s not. Emotions are not either/or and you can feel far more than one thing at a time,” says Eleanor Haley from the blog, What’s Your Grief? Happiness doesn’t replace sadness but exists alongside it.
Be Intentional: Have A Plan
The holidays continue, and if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself during the season as we are now with expectations that traditions will remain the same. And they can’t because your loved one won’t be with you. Here are some ideas to make some new traditions, and still include your loved one.
Food: Have one dish that was your loved one’s favorite, whether it’s a main or side dish or dessert.
Memory Tablecloth: Buy a tablecloth and have markers out for guests to write messages, or memories, or notes of encouragement.
Light a Candle: Where your loved one would have sat, consider lighting a candle in their memory. You can also purchase a candle holder and inscribe your loved one’s name.
Remembrance Ornaments and Trees: Get some blank ornaments and some markers that write on glass, and have your family and friends create an original ornament in memory and hang them on the tree.
Memory Jar: Invite family and friends to write memories on a slip of paper and put them in a memory jar, and later go through and read them aloud.
Stockings: Do the same with a Christmas stocking – have friends and family write out words of encouragement to others who are present.
Garland: Hang pictures with small clothespins on the garland and display them. Or simply get some twine and string it across the room, mantle, a doorway and hang the pictures this way.
Above All, Know Your Boundaries
Boundaries don’t depend on what others do but on what you decide to do, and this is where being intentional is important. You decide where to put your time and energy, and you let others know. Here are some tips from Liz Earle about how to do this:
Create space – don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries for yourself. It’s better to say ‘no’ and take time to yourself if you need it.
Choose your people – surround yourself with those you can talk to about your feelings.
Allow sadness – but also, if you feel a moment of joy, enjoy it, and don’t feel guilty. Share stories and bring your loved ones into your day.
Carrie Phelps-Campbell, TMG Contributor