Facing Grief and Loss During the Holidays
by Bob Livingstone, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
I am currently surrounded by friends who have recently lost loved ones. During the best of times, it is very challenging to have someone close to you die. It's totally overwhelming to find yourself grieving during the holiday season. My mother died in December eight years ago and I remember how trying that experience was. My usual methods for self-protection were not working and the natural guardian of my heart system decided to take a vacation.
The holiday season, which unofficially begins somewhere in early November and ends after New Year's Day can be devastating for those who are grieving. This is a time of year when there is lots of hustle and bustle, socializing with friends, and shopping. We are all supposed to be in a good mood and festive. If we are fortunate to have a job, some of us are on vacation during this time.
On Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year, lots of normal activities shut down and you can find yourself alone with your thoughts and memories of your lost loved one. The pain that
derives from this is unbearable and totally at odds with the celebratory spirit encompassing you. During the holidays there are many quiet moments that leave space for the raw power of your loss. It is felt in all parts of your being and can result in deep, heaving sobs.
You may be reluctant to ask for help and feel that it would be selfish to ask for a shoulder to cry on during Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza. This only serves to increase your sense of isolation and the fear that you are all alone in your mourning. This may cause you to panic and momentarily feel like the grief you are feeling will last forever.
The grief experience is complex and without real stages despite what you've heard. We all go through our own individual processes that may, but not necessarily include sadness, anger, resentment, longing, numbness, lack of concentration, inability to attend, loss of appetite, problems sleeping, spinning the same thoughts and memories over and over again, not believing that your loved one is really gone, experiencing anxiety and hopelessness.
These feelings can be exacerbated during the holidays because the normal daily activities have given way to parties, gift-giving, and other celebrations. Regular activities provide an essential and normal distraction from your internal pain. You don't have to be in agony all the time to work through your grief; it is okay to take a break from this heartache.
If your loss is a close family member, memories of her/his attendance at past holiday extravaganzas will loom large in your memory bank. You will have moments of realization that this person will never be joining you again and the pain will be unbearable, but it will slowly lessen as time moves on.
In the quiet of a winter holiday afternoon, you may see someone walking down the street who has a strong resemblance to your deceased loved one. It will catch you off balance and you'll be blindsided by the pain. This is something for which you cannot prepare; you can only be aware that it will occur.
During this initial grieving period that unfortunately is happening in the middle of the holidays, you will think you want to be alone one moment, and a short period of time later, you will crave company. Your mood will change more radically than before your loss. Unpredictability is the only predictable constant here.
Here are some helpful tips for dealing with grief and loss during the holidays:
* Expect that you will feel extra vulnerable at this time.
* Expect that your mood will swing erratically.
* Expect that your social needs will change from one minute to the next.
* Expect that your sleeping and eating habits will not be consistent.
* Expect that those around you will try to cheer you up or leave you to deal with the grief in
your own space. Don't be afraid to share what your needs are with your support network.
* Allow yourself to cry if you feel the tears coming on.
* Realize that you will be feeling many emotions and thoughts including being angry at your loved one for leaving you.
* Don't be afraid to opt out of holiday festivities because you do not feel like celebrating. You are not obligated to participate.
* Exercise as much as possible as a means of facing and healthily distracting yourself from the loss.
* Reach out to others when you need to talk about your feelings of loss.
* Know that while you have periodic bursts of intense sadness, you will feel better over time.
Bob Livingstone holds a Master's degree and has been in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He has generously granted permission for publishing this article on the DEHV blog.