IT’S (NOT ALWAYS) THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR: GRIEVING THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS 101
Written by Erin Mitchell MSW, LCSW
To start, let me introduce myself (I promise to make it short). My name is Erin and I am new to OakHeart. I have been doing counseling for 12 years and one of the topics that I am very passionate about is grief. I worked as a hospice bereavement coordinator (a fancy way to say grief counselor/therapist) for 3 of those years. There is just so much that is misunderstood about the grieving process and I would like to share with you some of the ways that people I have worked with have found to survive the holidays.
Many grieving people who are facing down the remainder of December find themselves dreading what the holidays are bringing. We have the cultural expectation that the holidays are a time for unfettered joy and celebration, which creates an enormous amount of added stress when you are grieving. When you feel like getting through everyday forces you to put on a mask to hide your grief, the disparity between what you actually feel and the expectations of “joy” and “cheer” that bombard you during the holiday season makes it feel impossible to get through. You may even feel like you need to hide out and sleep through the next month to emerge once January is upon us.
If this resonates with you, then read on for some suggestions that can help you survive the season.
1. Be gentle with yourself. It is incredibly important to be kind to yourself in your grief. You may feel that you “should” or “shouldn’t” do or experience so many different things. The truth is that grief is a lifelong journey. You don’t “get over it” and there is no time limit. It has the horrible side effect of making it seem like it has been a very long time and just yesterday all at once. If this is your first year of grief or your tenth, grief has a way of leaving its mark.
2. Consider your grief triggers. I’m sure that you probably have some things that you are positively dreading in the upcoming season. Think about what those are and why they seem so painful. Consider if these are things that you absolutely have to do this year and change your plans accordingly.
3. Be flexible. One of the most important things is to follow how you feel. Grief tends to be constantly changing our emotions. Maybe last week it seemed like a great idea to go to that office party, but today it seems like a nightmare. Follow how you feel and be kind to yourself. If you don’t want to go, chances are that you don’t actually have to.
4. Consider changing old traditions. Traditions can be absolutely wonderful. They can be reminders of happier times and a way to connect with the past. However, when traditions become painful there is no reason that you cannot make changes. These don’t have to be permanent changes, but maybe just the next year or two. I have worked with individuals that couldn’t put up a Christmas tree, so they got out a tree they decorated for another holiday and used that instead. Maybe the mashed potatoes that mom always made are just something that cannot happen this year, so just allow those to be skipped this year. Maybe instead of personalizing all of those holiday cards, you can write a general letter letting people know what happened in your life and send that out in all those cards (or just skip them this year). Talk with your loved ones that you celebrate with to let them know that you plan to change things up for this year ahead of time. That way they will know in advance and can possibly help make those changes.
5. Make an escape plan. This is something that is useful during any upcoming events that you are dreading. If you are concerned about having a “breakdown” in front of others or are just worried about what to do in situations where you cannot easily just leave; come up with an escape plan. Have a pre-planned excuse for leaving early. Think of the place that you can be alone if you need to be during that holiday gathering. If you have a planned way to get out of the situation, you will most likely have less anxiety going into that situation about the potential “what ifs”.
6. Create new traditions. Consider ways that you could possibly honor or remember your loved one during the holiday season. Some people volunteer in their loved one’s memory. Some people will write letters to their loved one. Some will attend a memorial. What appeals to you and your family? What new tradition can you think of that would be right for you?
7. Beware of overindulging. Many of our holiday festivities have alcohol readily available and encouraged. While alcohol (and other substances) may seem like the answer to drown out those feelings of grief, it really only delays those feelings until later. If you are going to be drinking, please make sure that you are being safe.
8. Find support. This support can come from any area of your life. If those friends and family members are helpful to you in your time of grief, then try to open up with them about what you are experiencing. No one knows what you are currently experiencing unless you tell them. Something to keep in mind is that we tend to believe that those we are closest to and love the most will be the most supportive, sadly that is not always the case. If your closest loved ones are not able to be supportive to you in your grief, or just don’t understand, there are other avenues of support available. You may find that a grief support group is helpful, or a grief therapist, or an acquaintance that you never knew had been through something similar. There also tend to be remembrances or memorials held around the holidays. Contacting local support groups or hospices can be a good start.
9. There will be “grief bursts”. Even if you have evaluated everything coming up on your schedule, you will still have times where the grief just seems to come out of nowhere or you stumble headfirst into an instant grief trigger. Don’t be shocked if this happens to you. Grief is not always predictable and it does not mean that you are “getting worse” or being unhealthy in any way. It is just that our grief is constantly changing and makes us more sensitive to the world around us at times. That is not bad or wrong, it just is.
10. Take care of you. When you are feeling overwhelmed by grief, it can be very easy to ignore your physical needs. Your emotional needs seem to take center stage and make it very difficult to maintain those necessary functions, like sleep and healthy appetite. For many grieving people, your appetite and sleep habits are the first things to be heavily impacted. Grief is an enormous stressor and tends to make you more susceptible to health issues and general illnesses. Try not to be constantly busy and to make sure that you are checking in with yourself physically. If you find that there are small (or large) things that you can do to make your grief a little more bearable, do them.
Hopefully these tips will be helpful in getting through the holiday season. If you believe that you may want to seek professional help getting through this difficult time, contact OakHeart to schedule an appointment to meet with one of our clinicians at 630 570-0050 or email Contact.OH@OakHeartCenter.com.
Helpful Grief Resources:
Dr. Alan Wolfelt article on getting through the holidays. https://www.centerforloss.com/2016/12/helping-heal-holiday-season/
Hospice Foundation of America’s support group list. https://hospicefoundation.org/Grief-(1)/Support-Groups
Share Miscarriage & Early Infant Loss Support website. http://nationalshare.org/