Deck the Halls… Do I Have To? – 4 Ways to Cope During the Holidays
“Grandma’s house is the only place that we’d ever had Christmas. Her tree, hand cut by dad, was filled with hand-made ornaments from her grandchildren and old fashioned bulbs from the ’50′s. Grandma died of a heart attack in October. How can I possibly celebrate the holidays now that she’s gone?”
Grieving the loss of any family member, spouse or friend can be all-encompassing. Periods of great sadness, crying, loss of appetite, insomnia, and feelings of isolation are just a few of the symptoms of grief. Couple this with the cultural expectation that holidays are to be joyful, filled with family gatherings and parties, and revisiting long-standing traditions, and you can see why grief during the holidays can be particularly painful.
Triggers, which are sights, sounds, smells, even tastes that jog the memory, can set off emotional responses. When someone is grieving, triggers during the holidays range from songs played on the radio and in stores, to festive decorations, to the smells of roasting turkey or fresh latkes.
Ironically, avoiding, or the attempt at avoiding these triggers, can often cause one’s grief to intensify or become prolonged. Telling yourself that you are “supposed to feel joyful” during the holiday season is an unrealistic expectation that only complicates your grief. By adopting strategies to cope with grief during the holidays, you can learn how to gauge what is reasonable during this season and how to receive adequate support during this difficult time.
1. Practice Mindfulness. This is a very popular term that has stemmed from Buddhist thinking. Taking time out daily to sit, breathe deeply, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, and gently accept them actually accelerates healing. Practicing mindfulness, according to Sameet M Kumar PhD, author of Grieving Mindfully, “…is not to help you cover up the pain, but to help you be okay with yourself.”
2. Consider the old versus the new. As a bereaved individual, you have the opportunity to select which parties, traditions, church services, dinners, and events you wish to attend and which to decline. Just because something is a long-standing tradition doesn’t mean it is personally meaningful for you today. Consider a new tradition, such as serving at a soup kitchen or participating in a food drive for the hungry. Many bereaved clients I’ve worked with in past groups report how liberating it is to slow down and quiet themselves during the holidays as opposed to engaging in the frenetic pace associated with the season.
3. Just Say No and Yes. It’s no secret that Americans indulge in excessive eating and drinking over the holidays, resulting in not only five to ten pounds of weight gain, but depression. Saying no to excessive eating and alcohol to self-medicate will add a stabilizing force throughout your grief. Say yes to exercise. If you are able, spend daily time exercising, particularly in the outdoors. In the long run, allowing feelings to come without numbing them assists you in finding ways to cope with your loss rather than feeling stuck.
4. Get support. Supportive friends and family are ones who respect your choices and listen to your stories. If you don’t have that type of support system, find one! Often, local hospices, churches and hospitals conduct bereavement groups specifically designed for holiday support.
In the words of the poet Max Ehrmann, “…be gentle with yourself.” This is a time of remembrance, of holding on, and of letting go. Above all, grieving through the holidays demands loving, self care. Grief is not something that can or should be avoided. Accepting your feelings, exercising wise choices as well as the body, and utilizing support will help you cope with the impact of grief during this holiday season.