The holidays are intended to be a time of great joy, family togetherness, gift giving and thankfulness. Instead, if someone has died, the holidays can evoke extreme sadness, loneliness and emptiness. While there is no right or wrong way to approach it, the following are some suggestions and guidelines that may be helpful to those experiencing a loss during this time of year. They are adapted from the book “How Do I Get Through the Holidays” by James Miller.
1. Accept the pain. Don’t pretend everything is normal. Remember this first year is one of adjustment.
2. Feel whatever it is you feel. Feelings are a sign you are human, that you have loved deeply. Those can include:
- Sadness. It’s hard to feel your sadness at a time when you are supposed to be happy.
- Depression. You may feel overwhelmed, have no energy or feel desolate and despairing.
- Anxiety. You may feel nervous or jittery and experience tightness in your chest.
- Fear. You may be fearful about the future — what you’ll do, even if you’ll survive.
- Anger. Being mad is a normal response. You may be angry at yourself, or at God or at the whole world.
- Guilt. You may dwell on what you did or didn’t do while the person was alive. You may feel guilty you are alive and your loved one is not.
- Apathy. You may feel numb, confused and disoriented or experience almost no feelings at all.
3. Express your emotions. Talk to family and friends. Journal, exercise, listen to or play music. Create something out of clay, paint a painting. Move your feelings from within yourself to outside yourself.
4. Plan ahead. Don’t let the holidays just happen. Come up with a plan to get through them.
5. Take charge where you can. Ask for what you need. Your grief can make you feel powerless. Take charge of who you spend time with, how much you exercise and of the food you eat. Consider new rituals that include opportunities to remember the past.
6. Go to others for support. There was a time when mourning practices were very defined. That’s no longer the case. People are afraid of saying the wrong thing and so may avoid you. You can contact your local hospice to find out what additional support is available.
7. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself plenty of time to rest. You’ll have “good” and “bad” days — they simple go with the territory. Simplify holiday shopping or forgo it. Set easily attainable goals for yourself and make realistic lists to complete.
8. You may feel comfort in linking objects that make you feel closer to your loved one. Wear a necklace that was hers or a scarf or hat or some other personal item. Some people create a table of remembrance where pictures can be placed and a special candle lit throughout the holidays. For those whose grief is fresh, this may be too painful. Don’t force yourself. Do what feels right.
9. Search out and count your blessings. This can be difficult to do during dark times but if we attempt to view life through the lens of gratitude we can usually find one thing to be thankful for.
10. Do something for others. It often helps to reach out through your own grieving. You could take care of a friend’s pets or watch someone’s child. Find something that gives meaning to your days and to others’ lives. It may help you to put your loss in to a broader perspective.
11. Give voice to your soul. Grief affects us physically and emotionally but also spiritually. You may not use the word “spirit” or “soul” but some inner part of you is involved. Consider making some room in your day to sit and be quiet, take a walk, meditate or pray.
12. Harbor hope. No one likes to grieve, but it is the very act of grieving that brings us back to life. It is only by letting yourself feel bad that you can finally feel good again. Hope is a powerful tool. You can hope you will integrate this loss into your life. You can hope you will one day remember your loved one without so much pain and live your life in loving remembrance of them.
Keeping in mind that every person and loss is different, the above suggestions are merely guidelines we believe most bereaved people will find helpful. Incorporate those that fit for you. Your holidays can still be a very significant time for you. They will certainly be different and perhaps painful, but they can still be meaningful. It’s even possible they can hold peace, serenity and most of all, hope.
Claire Aagaard is the bereavement manager at the Center for Grief, Education and Healing at Hospice Partners of the Central Coast.