Managing grief can be difficult on any given day. However, the holidays can be particularly tough to get through. It’s supposed to be the most joyous time of year, but if it’s your first holiday season without a loved one, it can feel empty and incomplete.
If you’re feeling this way you’re not alone. The holidays have a way of highlighting loss making it feel all the more apparent. It’s so common there’s a condition called holiday depression.
The grief may feel inescapable, but there are things you can do to find relief during the holidays.
- Grief, with its many ups and downs, lasts longer than society in general recognizes. Be patient with yourself.
- Each person’s grief is individual. You and your family will experience it and cope with it differently.
- Crying is an acceptable and healthy expression of grief and releases built-up tension for the bereaved person. Cry freely as you feel the need.
- Physical reactions to the death of a loved one may include loss of appetite or overeating, sleeplessness and sexual difficulties. The bereaved may find that he/she has very little energy and cannot concentrate. A balanced diet, rest and moderate exercise are especially important to you at this time.
- Avoid the use of drugs and alcohol. Medication should be taken sparingly and only under the supervision of your physician. Many substances are addictive and can lead to a chemical dependence. In addition, they may stop or delay the necessary grieving process.
- Friends and relatives may be uncomfortable around you. They want to ease your pain but do not know how. Take the initiative and help them learn how to be supportive to you. Talk about your loved one so they will know this is appropriate.
- Whenever possible, put off major decisions (changing residences, changing jobs, etc.) for at least a year.
- Avoid making hasty decisions about your loved one’s belongings. Do not allow others to rush you. You can do it little by little whenever you feel ready.
- You may feel you have nothing to live for and may think about a release from this intense pain. Be assured that many bereaved persons feel this way, but that a sense of purpose and meaning does return. The pain does lessen.
- Guilt, real or imagined, is a normal part of grief. It surfaces in thoughts and feelings. Learn to forgive yourself.
- Anger is another common reaction to loss. Anger, like guilt, needs expression and sharing in a healthy and acceptable manner.
Grief: A Normal And Natural Response To Loss
Grieving over the loss of a loved one is very painful and at times can seem overwhelming. Many of us wonder if we are grieving in the “right” way and worry whether the feelings being experienced are “normal”.
Here are some of the most common feelings which you may encounter now and for the coming months.
Natural and Normal Grief Responses
- Feeling emotionally numb.
- Knowing that the death has occurred, but having difficulty believing it.
- Feeling tightness in the throat and heaviness in the chest or in the pit of one’s stomach.
- Having a loss of appetite or desire to eat more than usual.
- Having a desire to smoke, drink or use drugs (especially tranquilizers) in a greater amount than before.
- Feeling restless and looking for activity and finding it difficult to concentrate and
- Having difficulty sleeping, waking early, and often dreaming of your loved one.
- Being overly concerned with your health and even developing symptoms similar to those of your loved one.
- Feeling low at times of birthdays, holiday, and special occasions.
- Spending money on things usually not purchased.
- Feeling preoccupied with financial concerns.
- Telling and retelling things about your loved one and the experience of his/her death.
- Talking things over with the deceased person.
- Feeling mood changes over the slightest things.
- Feeling guilty for what was said or not said or for not having done enough for you loved one.
- Being angry or irritated at the wrong person or the wrong circumstances.
- Feeling intensely angry at your loved one for leaving you.
- Having difficulty making decisions on your own.
- Sensing your loved one’s presence, believing you hear his/her voice or expecting him/her to come back.
- Experiencing an intense preoccupation with the life of the deceased.
- Assuming mannerisms or traits of your loved one.
- Feeling as though life doesn’t have any meaning.
- Not wanting to be with people or having difficulty initiating contact with others.
- Feeling self-pity and not feeling needed.
- Crying at unexpected times.
These are natural and normal grief responses. Crying and expressing your feelings to others can be helpful. Often it is hard to live through a grief experience and then adjust to a new life.
Start a New Holiday Tradition That Honors Your Loved One
Part of the loss we feel during the holidays is the traditions don’t quite feel the same when a loved one isn’t there to participate. It can even feel wrong to do the same holiday activities without them there.
There is a lot of comfort that comes from holiday traditions so it’s important to maintain them if you can. It may be uncomfortable at first, but you may find all the warm memories that are drummed up are worth it in the end.
You could also start a new holiday tradition in the memory of a loved one. It could be getting a new star to put on top of the tree. Or the immediate family could take a holiday trip to your loved one’s favorite winter spot. The goal is to find a tradition that can help fill the void and give you something to look forward to next year.
Give to Others
One of the best things about the holidays is that it puts people in the giving spirit. Giving back gives us a lot in return. According to AmeriCorps after volunteering:
- 78% of people say it lowers their stress level
- 94% say volunteering improves their mood
- 96% feel that volunteering gives them a sense of purpose
Helping others who are less fortunate than ourselves reminds us of all we do have. You can also make a donation in your loved ones name as a way of honoring their memory during the holidays. Or you could start a charitable event in their name. Whatever you choose to do, giving back is sure to make you feel less lonely and lost during the holidays.
It’s also important to have your own support system that you can count on during the holidays. Simply having others around can be enough to get you through the holidays when you’re struggling. Isolation has been found to be a predictor of holiday depression.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed speak up and tell someone. There are support groups online and offline that can also help if you don’t have family and friends nearby.
Techniques For Healing After The Loss Of A Loved One
- Admit to yourself that you are having feelings of grief
- Fully experience these very painful feelings.
- Repressing your feelings is detrimental to your health.
- When asked, “How are you doing?”, do not respond “Fine”, if in fact you do not feel fine. Share only what and how much you wish to share.
- Remove “should” and “ought” from your vocabulary. Instead, say to yourself “I will do this”. Make your own choices, not what you think others will want you to say and think.
- Gradually learn to refer to you possessions as “mine” rather than “ours” (if the death was that of a spouse). In doing so, you are living in the present rather than in the past.
- Pay attention to your dreams. They often reveal subconscious attitudes. Journaling your dreams will help you to see and work through them.
- Build new relationships and find new friends. Try new activities. Join a grief support group or other organizations that will help you to live again.
- Have an imaginary conversation with the person who died. Talk over your future plans and say “goodbye” so you can move on.
- Think problems through carefully. Decide what you feel is best for you, and then do it without regrets.
- Think of yourself as a person who is handling a deeply painful experience as best you can.
- Be fully aware of your environment and the people around you. This will help you deal with your loss.
- Spend some time alone. Get to know yourself, you will find much to like about you.
- You can grow through this stressful experience. Your feelings and emotions are normal. It’s what you do with your feelings that make a difference.
Know That It’s Okay
It’s okay to feel grief during the holidays. It’s okay if you don’t want to celebrate like last year. It’s okay if you do want to celebrate.
Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Allow yourself to acknowledge that the holidays aren’t going to be quite the same. Doing so can be just what you need to process everything and push past the grief.
Six Healthy Habits to Help You Cope
- Have a Support System: keeping in touch with family and friends and/or developing new supportive relationships is usually helpful. Who are the people you can count on for support?
- Eat Well – you may be tempted to snack or just not eat at all. Even though you may not feel like it, try to eat well-balanced meals and healthy snacks, regularly. Have your eating habits changed?
- Drink Plenty of Fluids – this is easy to overlook. What do you like to drink? Water and juices are good. Try to avoid too much alcohol and caffeine. Keep your favorite healthy drinks on hand and know you’re being good to yourself when you pour yourself a glass. What have you had to drink today?
- Exercise – regular exercise can energize you and make you feel better. Some people find that stretching or taking a walk can lift their spirits. Others enjoy swimming, bowling or golf. What is your favorite activity?
- Rest Daily – your sleep patterns may be irregular. You may find you sleep all the time, or unable to sleep or notice any change. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you may need to schedule regular rest periods. Are you getting enough rest?
- Don’t Hesitate to Call Your Doctor – you’ve been under a lot of stress. Stress causes changes in your body that may make you more likely to become ill. During this time it may be best to call your doctor early whenever you have symptoms of illness. How are you feeling?
How Do You Know You’re Feeling Better
Although everyone has her/his own style and timeline of grief, you can measure your progress by certain feelings and behaviors which come about as you feel better.
As your sense of humor begins to return and you find yourself laughing, you know you’re feeling better. As you find your mood swings not so high and so low, you can feel the time lengthen between upsets.
When you hear yourself giving some human qualities to your deceased loved one as you recall past moments, then you know you’re moving through the worst of your grief. As you find yourself making major decisions and taking responsibility for determining the quality of your life, you’re feeling better.
When you are making new friends, you ensure that you will have supportive people around you in the future and seldom have to be lonely. Finally, when you learn that your life is in your hands and that you are capable of taking charge, you’ll know you’re fully growing.
Courtesy of the Widowed Persons Service of mesa County, Mesa County Association for Mental Health, 1170 Colorado Ave., Grand Junction, CO81051.
You Know You’re Recovering When……
- You can laugh and enjoy being with others.
- Taking care of yourself is not only OK, but it feels good.
- The future is not so frightening.
- You can handle “special days” without falling apart.
- You want to reach out to others in need or pain.
- You now enjoy activities that you had given up after the death of your loved one.
- You can share humorous memories without crying.
- You emotional roller coaster is slowing down.
- You can actually see your progress.
- You can give away some of your loved one’s personal effects without feeling guilty.
- You can skip or forget a ritual such as visiting the cemetery, and there is no guilt.
Do not be alarmed if one day you suddenly feel the pangs of grief again and believe that you are slipping back into the valley of grief. These moments will come when you least expect them, but you will be able to handle the situation without panic.
Since the death of your loved one, your life will never be what it once was, and that is reality. Life has taken a different direction, and you will never be able to reconcile yourself to the change. You will never forget your loss but the pain does become bearable and, at times, touching the tender memories will not elicit pain.
If you are feeling grief this holiday season reach out and connect with others however you can. And if it feels like the grief is overwhelming consider calling the SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357).
Additional Resources – Free Downloads
Children, Grief, You and the Holidays