Dr. Judy Pierson, clinical psychologist and bereavement counselor for Delaware Hospice, acknowledges that holidays can be quite challenging for family members who are trying to cope with a loss. She offers 16 tips to help cope with grief through the holidays.
This is simply not the most wonderful time of the year for everybody, particularly for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. The holidays are stressful during the best of times. There’s too much to do and too little time, too much to buy and too little money. There are unrealistic expectations for perfection: the perfect meal, perfect decorations, perfect gifts and perfect family visit.
Some people long for the magical feelings of childhood or to belong to that “Hallmark family,” and they suffer the disappointments of nostalgia never equaling holiday realities or of family problems that don’t magically disappear during the holidays.
When one is coping with a loss, Pierson has these suggestions:
Allow yourself to be imperfect and do less. As human beings, we are not perfect, and few of us come from "Hallmark families."
With the focus of the holidays on traditions, memories and family gatherings, your feelings of grief will be intensified and there’s no way to avoid the reality of the absence of a lost loved one. Rather, you need to make space for it and surround yourself with people who understand your feelings and can support you.
Practically, you need to focus on yourself. Be honest about how you feel and what you are able to do. Don’t go to every event. If you do, address the ‘elephant in the room’ - the fact that Dad’s not here or Mom’s not here, acknowledging the loss. Sharing with others provides a wonderful opportunity for healing.
Don’t feel guilty if a moment of fun takes you by surprise; you know your loved one would want you to have moments of happiness.
Understand that music is a strong trigger of emotions and memories, and it is everywhere during the holidays.
Drink in moderation, remembering that alcohol may be around in abundance and lead to the temptation to drink too much.
When grieving, it is normal to feel periods of deep exhaustion. The holidays will add to that exhaustion. For this reason, I urge radical self-care. Make sure you eat enough and sleep enough.
Have a family meeting ahead of time to decide what everyone wants to do this first Christmas without your loved one. Don’t ignore your loss, but create a space for it; otherwise, it’s like a cloud hanging over the family. Light a candle; put up a photo or a plate of his or her favorite cookies.
Carry something that belonged to your loved one with you to help you feel connected to that person - your husband’s watch, your wife’s ring, a scarf, etc. You don’t have to tell anyone about it, which recreates an intimacy that you had with that person.
If there are roles the deceased used to play, figure out who is going to take over that job. You might want to simply cut out traditions, but try to keep each person’s favorite part of the holidays. Ask everyone to list their three favorite things, and keep at least one thing from each list that’s important if you can’t do all three - such as baking sugar cookies or decorating the tree together.
Plan ahead and think about what’s going to be helpful to you or what nurtures you. Educate the people around you about what you need. Tell people how they can help you; they will appreciate it. Trust your own instincts rather than what people think you should do. Set limits and say no. If it’s too hard, don’t go to events this year. People will understand.
Don’t expect to change family dynamics, and don’t isolate yourself completely, because staying alone all day is not the best thing. Do something that works for you. For example, don’t go for dinner, but go for dessert.
Cut down on your shopping or skip it altogether this year. Use gift certificates. If your loved one had a favorite book, give it to everyone on your list.
Give yourself permission to cry if you need to. Don’t be critical of yourself. If you see other couples and you’re jealous that you're alone, know that this is normal and OK.
Create some rituals to remember your loved one. Place a candle and photo of your loved one on a table and ask each person to write down or share how that person lives on within them. Create a memory book with photos, letters or favorite stories. Buy angels for the Christmas tree or decorate ornaments in honor of that person. Tie a message to a balloon and release the balloon, symbolically sending that message to them.
Finally, realize that the anticipation is almost always worse than the actual experience. Anticipation might last two months, but the holidays pass quickly in reality.
Delaware Hospice welcomes members of the community to attend a grief support group. To learn more, call 800-838-9800 or go to www.delawarehospice.org.