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Holidays May Not Be So Merry When You’re Grieving–5 Ways to Cope

One of the difficulties of going through grief is feeling so out of sync with the rest of the world. This feeling is multiplied tenfold around the holidays when the ever-present pressure to feel joy and happiness surround events that, for you, only highlight the fact that a loved one is gone. Songs, cards and even commercials talk about being with family and celebrating good times and if you’re grieving each one of these reminders can intensify the pain in your heart.
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I often tell clients that going through grief is like having the flu. When you have the flu you don’t expect yourself to function normally. You realize that you have to cut back, take it easy and allow yourself to recuperate. It’s important to remind yourself, family and friends that even though you’re not coughing and feverish your world has changed and inside you may be feeling even worse than you ever did with the flu. I recently heard actor Martin Short talking about the first Thanksgiving his family shared after losing his wife. The table was perfectly set and all the usual food was made but when they said down he did a brilliant thing. He told his family, and I may paraphrase, “Today we all want to run a marathon but we have to realize that we have a broken leg that is in a cast and we just can’t run a marathon today. We will heal and a time will come when we feel stronger but it won’t be this year.” Which brings me to my first way to cope:

#1 Be Where You Are

What Martin Short did that was so good was the very thing so many people are loathe to do in grief–acknowledge the loss. It’s not the same old holiday, it can’t be and it never will be again. That doesn’t mean all is lost. To quote the Grinch, “Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we”. Life does go on and we have other people to love in this world but the loss does forever change things and it is important to not try to pretend otherwise. If you have children and don’t want them to see you sad please realize that sadness can exist alongside joy. They can see you cry and laugh and this gives them much better modeling for how to handle a wide range of emotions. We need to help prepare children for negative emotions and we don’t do that if we always shield them from ours. The important thing is to tell them why you are sad and tell them you are ok but that sometimes when someone has died people cry and feel bad.

#2 Find a Way to Honor Your Loved One

Sometimes finding a way to channel the expression of grief is helpful. We have no control over a loved one being taken from us but we can have a say in how we remember them. Finding a way to honor your loved one during the holiday season can be comforting or at least a way to put something in the gaping hole their loss has left. I had a client once who had a special candle and during the Christmas season she would light it every night and would sometimes share a story about her mother with her family. I saw another family bring a small Christmas tree to the cemetery. Try to find something meaningful to you, that is the key.

#3 Be Flexible!

When dealing with grief flexibility is always your friend but especially during the holiday season. The thing about grief is it may surprise you. You may feel fine about having the family over for your usual Christmas Eve dinner and then be hit with a wave of grief which sucks up all your energy. Rather than getting stressed out about carrying on with plan A have a plan B in the wings. Prepare everyone that it may be dinner as usual or it may be Chinese take out depending on how you feel. Don’t put pressure on yourself to do everything you usually do and to the same level. Cut some things back if you can. Lean on others if you can. Let people know what you need and what you may not be up for and then play it by ear. Remember the flu analogy–you aren’t 100% right now.

#4 Keep Traditions That Are Meaningful

Your loved one may no longer be here but their spirit can still be part of your celebrations. Traditions can be a wonderful way of connecting to the good feelings and memories you have and want to keep alive for your children. If your grandmother made the best paper-thin sugar cookies every year for your family then maybe you and your children can start making them for your family. My children never knew my grandmother and yet I smile every time my son asks for a “Grammy-sized” piece of cake because they’ve heard me share how my grandmother always served us such big portions of dessert and then would ask if we wanted more, almost as if it was wimpy to not have seconds. What a great indulgence this was and a wonderful memory that my children are in on because I shared my story with them.

#5 If Joy Comes, Don’t Feel Guilty

Sometimes people feel they are doing their loved one a disservice if they feel happy during a time of grief. I’ve seen people struggle with such guilt. They worry that it wouldn’t look right or people would think they aren’t sad enough or must not have cared that much. Some people hang onto their grief believing that it’s the only way to keep their loved one with them. But life does go on and there can be happiness or levity even in the darkest times. Connecting to joy, even briefly, can remind us that maybe someday we can feel more of that and maybe the feeling of heaviness crushing our hearts will get lighter. Hope is a good thing especially in the midst of such sorrow.

So give yourself permission to muddle through this holiday season; know that if you’re dealing with your grief in a healthy way, better years will await you.

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