Good Grief, It’s the Holidays: Facing the Season when Someone You Love Has Died
Courtesy Agape Healthcare, East Denver LIVING WELL Magazine
The holiday season, heavy in tradition, family events and expectation, can provoke anxiety in the best of times. To a person who is grieving, this season can seem like an onslaught from an army with endless reinforcements. Armed with candy canes, circular ads and tubes of shiny wrapping paper, they fight with persistent cheer and unyielding pressure to find joy in the season.
How can you face the holidays, let alone find joy, when you can’t picture yourself ever waking up on the right side of the bed again? Wouldn’t it be better to hunker down under the covers for a long winter’s nap? Not necessarily, according to Karrie Filios, MA, LPC, and bereavement director at Agape Healthcare.
“The holidays are especially tough for people who’ve lost someone they love,” she explains. “Just the thought of the season can produce incredible anxiety. But people who are grieving don’t have to fake it, grit their teeth and just get through—or spend the holidays with their heads under the covers.”
Filios, who’s worked in bereavement for 12 years, asserts that it is possible not only to survive the holiday onslaught, but to find meaning and even sparks of joy. Survival starts with some forethought, communication, and a simple plan.
Nature of Grief
A person who is grieving may not feel capable of thinking through breakfast, so the idea of planning ahead can seem overwhelming. This is natural. Grief can impair a person’s executive functioning, the way people receive, process and organize tasks and information. The holidays, requiring so much organization and prioritizing, become extra challenging. Even more troubling, especially to people who relish control, is that grief can take on a life of its own. Like a snake in a can, stuffing it down and applying a lid will only result in added pressure. Strong emotion can pop up in fierce and unexpected turns.
“This surprises people,” Filios says. “They’ll say, ‘I lost my dad a year ago, and here I am in the middle of the mall blubbering to “Silver Bells” on Muzak.’”
Making a Plan
Sometimes the sheer anticipation of the holiday season, or a specific event, can produce the most anxiety. Having a simple plan in place can help reduce stress and worry. The number one task is keeping in mind that this plan is flexible, and letting others know that plans may change.
The second task is for a person to determine what he or she wants the holiday to look like––and not succumb to outside pressure. Some people want to keep their typical holiday activities intact. Others decide to break with tradition, taking a trip with a trusted friend, getting Chinese takeout and a movie, or even trying to accomplish a bucket list goal.
Perhaps a person who is grieving doesn’t even know what he wants. In this case, sitting down with an understanding friend or family member to talk through the holiday season can help.
Family & Friends
In our society, we tiptoe around the topics of death and grief, going to lengths to avoid bumping into the elephant in the room. It’s important for friends and family members to acknowledge a person’s loss and avoid pat responses. Platitudes like, “He’s in a better place,” or “She’s not suffering anymore,” may be true statements, but they are not helpful. Friends and family can help most by asking specific questions. Instead of “What can I do?” it’s better to ask, “Would you like me to host this year?” or “Can I help you by getting a tree, going shopping, or baking?”
It’s also important for people not to assume they know what’s best for a person who is grieving and to respect his or her wishes. On the other hand, family and friends should be aware of risky or unhealthy behavior that may require intervention or professional help.
“When someone significant has died, we may feel guilty even thinking about planning to enjoy or celebrate the holidays,” Filios says. “It’s important for people to remember that we are human and capable of having many experiences within a day, or even an hour: grief and a good laugh, loss and celebration, sorrow and joy.”
For those who are grieving, this holiday will be different, but it doesn’t have to feel like a 30-day battle. Intentional planning and communication can lead to a season that is deep in meaning and lit by sparks of joy.
People who are grieving can find help through grief education, support groups and counseling. Go to agape-healthcare.com for a list of resources, or call Karrie Filios at 720-482-1988.
Holiday Survival Tips
Don’t assume your holidays will be miserable this year.
Be compassionate and gentle with yourself.
Be prepared for tough questions, and push yourself to answer them honestly. Then, allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling, whether that means excusing yourself or crying in front of someone.
Plan what you will do, whether it is something completely different––like traveling to Mexico––or something very similar to what you’ve done in the past.
Plan to have some alone time.
Communicate with your friends and family about what you may need during this time (to talk/ not to talk about it, to not have to cook, etc.).
Reassess your priorities.
Make a memory display.
If you accept an invitation, always have an escape plan if it feels too overwhelming to be there, and someone supportive close by once you leave.
Simplify gift giving, and consider the option of not giving gifts at all if it feels obligatory.
Make handmade gifts in honor of the person who died.
Start a new holiday tradition.
Remember that it’s good to laugh, and taking breaks from your grief is essential.
Reach out to others for help, or for companionship.
Drink lots of water.
Eliminate unnecessary stress from your schedule.
Remember that mourning is a spiritual journey, and find ways to mourn that are meaningful to you.
Adapted from “Healing Your Holiday Grief” by Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.