When the Holidays Mean Pain: Grieving During the Holiday Season
The holidays are right around the corner. How could we miss the reminders? Inserts of coupons for Halloween candy filling the Sunday newspaper. Noticeably increasing numbers of television commercials showing families gathered around tables laden with roasted turkeys, yams and cranberries. Christmas jingles piped over the sound system at the supermarket (in October).
For some people, this time of year brings a sense of lovely anticipation: of gifts and togetherness, delicious feasts and cheer. But what about those of us who have lost a loved one? How do we get through the season intact when reminders of family traditions surround us?
While these holiday cues may trigger anxiety when we’re struggling with a loss, we can use them to our advantage. They are a good indicator that it’s time to put some thought into how we want to approach the season and gives us a chance to mindfully put a plan in place.
Here are some ways to mentally and emotionally prepare for the holidays:
- Cultivate flexibility. You are in a situation you wouldn’t have chosen to be in. You didn’t imagine that things would be the way they are. However, you have the ability to adapt to the reality of what is and do the best that you can do. Keep in mind that anticipation of the holidays can be worse than the reality.
- Manage your expectations. Be easy on yourself. You don’t have to pretend that you’re feeling 100% when it’s all you can do to get through the day. Things are different now. Your life has been altered and this is going to be an adjustment. Well-meaning friends and family may try to distract you by keeping you busy. If that sounds good, by all means, join in. If not, allow yourself to say no to the invitations.
- Enlist support. During the holidays, memories of family togetherness are heightened. Validate your feelings and find a way to express them. Light a candle to honor your loved one. Speak about your loss with an empathetic friend. Seek out a support group or individual counseling as a safe space to share your burden.
- Challenge the status quo. Consider the rituals that have been a part of your family’s holiday traditions. Have you always been the one in charge of baking dozens of homemade treats? Perhaps you feel up to the task and it will bring you pleasure to go through the familiar motions. If so, do it! If the idea of spending hours on the kitchen sounds exhausting rather than rejuvenating, however, think about the “why” of the tradition and alter it as you see fit.
- Check in with yourself. Are you allowing yourself to experience moments of joy? Or, do you feel like you are betraying the memory of your loved one if you feel happy? Recognize this tendency towards guilt and give yourself permission to savor your lifted mood.
Be mindful of your mood during the holiday season. Your emotions are a powerful tool that helps guide you and tells you when you’ve overextended yourself or pushed past your personal boundaries. Remember to touch base with your feelings, validate them, and communicate them to others. This is an important part of self-care.
Some questions to consider:
How do you care for yourself during the holidays?
What triggers can you identify in advance that might be challenging during the holidays?
Who can you turn to for support, and who might be difficult to be around?
Marnee Reiley is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern in Irvine, CA. Certified in Grief and Bereavement Counseling, Marnee is honored to work with couples, individuals, and families with adjustment to life transitions, communication, and healthy adaptation to loss and change. Please visit her website at www.YourOCTherapist.com to learn more.