Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanza and New Year’s Day are annual holidays that can be a very difficult time for people who have experienced the death of a loved one. These holidays are laden with memories that remind us of the loss and change in our lives. It is absolutely normal to experience grief during the holiday season, whether your loved one died recently or decades ago.
Here are 7 things to keep in mind when you are experiencing grief during the holiday season.
1. Both/And Instead of Either/Or
Enter into this holiday season in a state of mind of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Joy does not eliminate sorrow, and sorrow does not eliminate joy. As uncomfortable and confusing as it may be, going back and forth between joy and sorrow after the death of a loved one is healthy and normal.
As you experience grief during the holiday season, allow yourself to experience joy AND sorrow; Joy and sorrow are a part of who you are. Would you forbid another person who lost a loved one recently to experience either joy or sorrow? If not, why would you forbid yourself? Forbidding yourself to experience joy or sorrow is cruel and unrealistic.
2. Experiencing Triggers
Perhaps you already know what things may trigger memories of your loved one during the holiday season: a certain song, a religious or family ritual, a certain dish. Perhaps you feel prepared for whatever triggers may occur, prepared to “keep yourself together.” But even when people in grief feel prepared with knowledge of what may trigger memories, triggers and the difficult emotions that follow them can happen by surprise. A smell, sound, or image you did not realize was a trigger for you can kindle an intense surge of sorrow. This can happen in private or in public. You may have a hard time staying focused on the present moment, shed a few quiet tears, or start to cry. You may feel vulnerable, embarrassed, or angry at yourself for showing your emotions.
When these icky, awful feelings start to flood your brain, try to remember: You are a human being who is going through grief. Triggers that remind you of how much you miss your deceased loved one are bound to occur, especially during the holiday season. Place reminders around your room: “It’s okay to feel however you are feeling in this moment.” “You are only human.” “Give yourself a hug.” Practice self-compassion during this difficult time.
3. Taking Care of Yourself
The transition back into work and your social settings after a loss can create a pressure on you to act better than you feel in order to appear socially appropriate. This transition can be exhausting. Add to that the cultural expectation of being “cheerful” during the holiday season, and the pressure may feel absolutely exhausting.
This type of fatigue is normal and you need to take care of yourself. Monitor your energy. Be willing to moderate your social plans. Spend as much time as you can with people with whom you can fully be yourself and who will support you without judgement. It’s important to communicate to your loved ones how you are feeling and that you need support during this time.
4. Scheduling Time to Intentionally Remember Your Loved One
Be intentional about scheduling time during this holiday season to approach your pain with compassion and patience. Create rituals that represent the unique relationship you shared with your loved one, such as listening to his or her favorite music, reading a favorite poem, or watching a movie that the two of you enjoyed. Spend some time writing specific memories about your loved one and the holiday season.
Light a candle or ring a bell to mark this special time of reflection. If you have time, visit the cemetery or mausoleum if that provides you with a sense of connection with your loved one. Perhaps your family would like to participate and share memories about your loved one around the dinner table.
5. Reaching Out to Another Person in Grief
Those who grieve want their loss and their loved one remembered, so consider making contact with someone who is grieving, as well. It doesn’t matter how long ago that loss may have been. Offer the compassion to others you desire for yourself.
Compassion literally means to suffer with and calls us to enter into the pain of another. Listen with gentle curiosity and an open heart. Consider making a donation to a cause that is relevant to the person who is grieving.
6. Forgiving Others
Co-workers, friends, and relatives may try to “cheer you up” to distract you from your grief or make comments about grief that bother you. This is especially common during the holidays; many people want to be there for you but do not know how and trip over their words. Be forgiving; they mean well. Patience may be needed when you’re in the midst of people who have not experienced the loss of a loved one or do not understand the significance of the loss. Co-workers, friends, and relatives may respond to loss and grief very differently than you do. Approach this challenge with compassion and understanding towards yourself and others.
7. Forgiving Your Loved One and Yourself
As you reflect on your loss, you may start to fixate on things you wish you had done for or told your loved one or ways that your loved one hurt you. Perhaps you and your loved one fought during your last holiday together or you did not spend the holidays togethers because of an emotional rift between the two of you. Acceptance of your own and your loved ones mistakes, wrongdoings, and flaws is a long journey; start your journey today. Light a candle, ring a bell, play a song or watch a movie you and your loved one and offer up love and forgiveness this holiday season.
Every person is bound to experienced grief at some point in their life. Death is an unavoidable reality and it’s never more real than when we lose someone we love. Grief is does not end; it changes. Some days may be easier to live through than others and the grief you feel during the holiday season can be especially difficult to tolerate. These difficult times are when it is especially important to be gentle and kind to yourself.
If you are having difficulty with loss or grief, you are not alone. Consider scheduling a therapy session with a mental health professional at the Center for Growth in Philadelphia. Call (215) 922-5683x1 or schedule an appointment on our website.