If you have experienced a loss, the holidays can be truly daunting as you wonder how you will maneuver your way through them without falling apart. You might even have started dreading the holidays as the first leaves started to drop off this fall. The period from September right down to the end of the year can be very difficult for some. Add to that, the seasonal change of lessening daylight hours and more darkness, perhaps it’s no wonder this period can be the most difficult of all for the recently (or not so recently) bereaved. The holidays may also unexpectedly trigger memories of losses experienced years ago.
This year in particular will be difficult for people as many have lost friends and loved ones to the COVID virus. The typical grieving activities that we participate in may seem very different with social distancing and mask mandates, etc. It is also especially important this year to keep in mind that grief can change brain chemicals and hormonal functioning, and your immune system can be compromised. This is why it’s all too important to take care of yourself even more this holiday season.
While grief counselors and therapists agree that there’s no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays after the death of a loved one, there are ways to help ease the pain. Below are some suggestions on ways to help you cope with the holiday season while mourning the loss of a loved one, while keeping current COVID guidelines in mind:
- Don’t ask too much of yourself. Especially if the loss was recent. The truth is, is that you are not yourself. In some ways you may never be again. If it feels too overwhelming to cook a big dinner, decorate for the holiday or even shop for presents, don’t. No one is asking or expecting you to, especially in that first year. If you don’t want to do any of these things, don’t. If you do, ask for help. You’ll get it. People want to help. They can’t bring your loved one back, but they’ll do anything else they can. They’ll be thankful they could do something meaningful for you.
- Reshape traditions. If old traditions are too painful and bring about too much sadness, it’s OK to stop doing those things. If you use to cook a big meal, trying going out to eat. If you use to exchange gifts at a certain time or place, try exchanging in the days leading up to or following the holiday. Maybe even try something completely different, like planning a vacation during or close to the holiday. Over time, you’ll start creating new traditions that make sense for the reshaped family you’ve become. Slowly you and your family will begin to look forward to these new traditions. Traditions might also look pretty different this year; remind yourself that this is okay. Not only are you coping with the loss of a loved one, you are coping with a global pandemic. It is alright if certain traditions are not celebrated or are changed this year.
- Say her name. Tell stories about him. One of the most common reactions to individuals who have suffered a loss, is that no one talks about the person they’ve lost. They somehow believe that not doing so will help, that perhaps it will be too painful for you to hear their names. Of course it’s painful. But it’s even more so to pretend they never existed. People will take their cue from you. Talk about what you love most, miss most, makes you the saddest and makes you the happiest. Say their name and others will too.
- Take time for you. You may find that you need much more “me” time than you did prior to the passing of your loved one. You might find yourself feeling more fatigued, especially after time with family and friends. If that’s the case, take naps. You may also find yourself wanting more alone and quite time. If so, take breaks while at work to go on a short walk or find a quiet place to sit alone for a few minutes. You may not be the conversationalist you used to be and that’s OK. You may find comfort in the silence. “Me” time may be tough to find during the holidays, but it’s essential that you recognize when you need it and act on that need.
- Allow yourself to be sad but also to experience joy. It’s okay to cry. Some holidays may always have a certain sadness to them after the death of a loved one. Plan for that sadness and embrace it when it comes. Try sitting down and writing a letter to your loved one, listen favorite songs, watch their favorite holiday movie. Try walking into the pain rather than trying to hold at bay. On the other hand, try to embrace joy when it comes too. It will come! It may be filtered through the hole in your heart, but it will come. You will laugh again and it will likely be during a holiday when the love of family and friends can’t help but make you smile. Your laughter, when it comes, will be the greatest gift you can give to others. They are taking their cue from you. Be authentic. To be anything else takes too much effort.
- Have a Plan A/Plan B. Plan A is to possibly go to the Thanksgiving, Christmas or Chanukah celebration with your family and friends. If it doesn’t feel right, have your plan B ready. Plan B may be a movie you and your loved one liked or a photo album to look through or a special place you went to together. This is probably the more ideal situation anyway considering that COVID is still a threat. Many people this year are already deciding to stay home and celebrate the holidays as opposed to going somewhere. Many people find that when they have Plan B in place, just knowing it is there is enough.
- Choose supportive people to be around. Be with those people you feel comfortable with, those who are okay with tears, those who can sit and chat with you about the person who has passed. Do a virtual session with these loved ones, are call them on the phone. It is important that you do not feel a need to entertain them but rather a freedom to just be relaxed and say and do the things you are comfortable with.
- Take Care of Yourself Physically. When grieving, we can often forget to take care of ourselves. You may find yourself not eating enough, eating more than you typically do or eating foods that provide little nutritional value. You might also feel the desire to drink alcoholic beverages in excess. These can be some of the ways we might try to distract ourselves away from our painful feelings. Make healthy choices, watch what you eat and drink, get plenty of rest and exercise.
- Remember to Remember. “Relationships don’t end, they only change form.” You are still impacted by your loved ones love, guided by their words, touched by their sense of humor. Acknowledge the person who died. Make their favorite dish this year. If you are buying gifts for others, buy gifts that are inspired by your loved one. Honor this relationship in whatever manner you find helpful. This relationship will never cease to be important to you.
- Call on your family and friends. Talk with loved ones about your emotions. Be honest about how you’d like to do things this year — if you want to talk about those who have passed, then do so, and let others know it’s OK. Read books about getting through the holidays after loss, and seek out support groups, lectures or faith-community events. Seek professional support from a therapist. Stay in touch with others who are grieving via online groups and connections with friends. The following is a link for a COVID grief support group specific to the holiday season: https://www.hcsservices.org/event/grief-and-the-holidays-during-covid-19-pandemic-support-group/.
- Recognize that holidays won’t be the same. It is likely impossible to keep everything the same as it was, so try to be kind with your expectations about what is possible. Doing things a bit differently can acknowledge the change while preserving continuity with the past.
- Plan for any approaching holidays. Be aware that this might be a difficult time for you. The additional stress may affect you emotionally, cognitively, and physically; this is a normal reaction. It is helpful to be as prepared as possible for these feelings.
- Limit social gatherings. Choose only to attend the ones that give you more comfort than stress. Be willing to leave a holiday function early if you become uncomfortable. It also important to keep this in mind with COVID still a concern. Make sure that you attend social gatherings with a very limited amount of people, wear your mask if in close contact with others, wash your hands consistently, and make sure to get tested if you have been around a lot of people. It is important to take care of your health while you are grieving.
This list is in no way complete, but thinking about these suggestions may perhaps be helpful to some. It’s natural to feel you may never enjoy the holidays again. They will certainly never be the same as they were. However, in time, most people are able to find meaning and comfort again in the new traditions that are formed. The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one. Do what works and feels right to you and your family.
By Amanda Keller, LCSW & Marion White, MHD-LP (Your Clinical Director and Senior EAP Counselor)