By Amy Goyer, AARP
Family gatherings can be painful reminders of the absence of a loved one. Grieving the loss of a loved one is a deep and difficult challenge at any time. But
the holiday season can magnify your sense of loss and mourning. Family gatherings and seasonal events can be painful reminders of the absence of a loved one. At the same time, they can also be comforting rituals where you spend time with family and friends, focusing on good memories and trying to recapture your sense of joy. If you are mourning a loss of a loved one this year, here are some important things to keep in mind.
1. Only do what feels right. It’s up to you to decide which activities, traditions or events you can handle. Don’t feel obligated to participate in anything that doesn’t feel doable. Grieving takes time. You are very vulnerable right now, so all you need to do is get through the day or week or season — in a healthy way. Try not to think much beyond that.
2. Accept your feelings — whatever they might be. Everyone takes his or her own path in grief and mourning. Some may try to avoid sad feelings; others will be bathed in tears. Some feel bad that they aren’t up for enjoying a holiday; others feel guilt because they are feeling joy. However you feel, accept it. And accept the inevitable ups and downs: You may feel peaceful one moment and gut-wrenchingly sad the next. Try to stay in tune with your own highest truth and you will know how to get through the holiday without judging yourself or others.
3. 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. Take a buddy to events for support and create an “escape plan” together in case you need to bow out quickly. 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.
4. Focus on the kids. Many holidays place special attention on children, and it often helps to focus on their needs. Realize that your choices around getting through the holidays may affect the children in your family. If you withdraw, they may not understand why you don’t want to join family festivities. Perhaps you can participate in the family rituals or gatherings that are most important to the kids, and excuse yourself when you reach your limit.
5. Plan ahead. Sometimes the anticipation is worse than the actual holiday. Create comforting activities in the weeks approaching a holiday so that you have something to look forward to rather than building up a dread of the pain the holiday could bring. New activities might be easier, but familiar traditions might be comforting as well — do what feels best for you. Surrounding yourself with positivity can be very helpful.
6. Scale back. If the thought of many holiday activities feels painful, overwhelming or inappropriate this year, cutting back may help. For example, you might opt for minimal decorations at home and take a break from sending holiday greetings, or try e-greetings instead of the more time-consuming task of mailing greeting cards. You could limit holiday parties to small gatherings with your closest friends and family. Do whatever feels safe and comfortable to you. Create realistic expectations for yourself and others, but above all be gentle with yourself.
7. Give. It’s amazing how in times of grief, sometimes the biggest comfort is to give to others. We often feel paralyzed by the sheer emotion — sadness, feelings of helpless or hopelessness. In times of loss, we often want to do something that will make a difference. Consider these options:
• If you’ve lost a loved one, gift-giving at holiday times may be a challenge. Shopping for gifts and seeing the perfect gift for someone you know you will never be able to give a gift to again can be devastating. Shopping online may be a better option for you.
• You might purchase something that symbolizes the person or time before your loss and donate it to a needy family. Or make a donation in a loved one’s name to a charity or cause he or she cherished.
• Negative circumstances may surround the loss you have experienced, and it’s so easy to fall into a focus on the sadness, horror or anger. Try channeling your energies in positive ways to create good in the world, rather than perpetuate the negative. Volunteer to help people in some way that is related to that which has caused such anguish. Give of your time and talents or make a donation to a related charity.
8. Acknowledge those who have passed on. When we are grieving a loss of someone very close to us, it can be helpful to participate in a related holiday ritual in his or her memory. Some ideas: lighting candles for them, talking about them, buying children’s toys or books to donate in their name, dedicating a service to them, planting a tree, making a card or writing a letter, displaying their picture or placing an item of theirs among holiday decorations.
9. Do something different. Acknowledge that things have changed; indeed, the holiday will not be the same as it was ever again. Accepting this will help manage expectations. Plan new activities, especially the first year after the loss. Go to a new location for family celebrations, change the menu or go out to eat, volunteer, invite friends over, attend the theater, travel … create new memories. Many families return to their usual routines and rituals after the first year, but some enjoy incorporating their new experiences permanently.
10. Skip it. If you feel that it will be too much for you and you’d like to simply opt out of participation in a holiday, let family and friends know. But plan alternative comforting activities for yourself and let someone know what you will be doing. It’s a good idea to make sure someone checks in with you on that day.
“Reprinted from AARP.org, December 2012. Copyright 2012 AARP. All rights reserved.”