When someone loved has died, the holidays can be so very painful. It is our relationships that give the holidays meaning, and now there is an empty chair at the table.Dr. Alan Wolfelt, C.T.
Holidays are often difficult for anyone who has experienced the death of someone loved. Rather than being times of family togetherness, sharing and thanksgiving, holidays can bring feelings of sadness, loss and emptiness.
Be gentle with yourself if you are grieving during the holidays. Don’t over-commit. It’s OK to skip traditions this year if you are not up for them. Also, look for ways to blend honoring the person who died into your celebrations. For example, you might decorate a special tabletop Christmas tree with photos and memorabilia of your loved one, or make the person’s favorite holiday cookies and share them with those who miss him. Mourning and celebrating can go hand-in-hand, for both are essential parts of life.
Since love does not end with death, holidays may result in a renewed sense of personal grief—a feeling of loss unlike that experienced in the routine of daily living. Society encourages you to join in the holiday spirit, but all around you the sounds, sights and smells trigger memories of the one you love who has died.
No simple guidelines exist that will take away the hurt you are feeling.
We hope, however, the following suggestions will help you better cope with your grief during this joyful, yet painful, time of the year. As you read through this article, remember that by being tolerant and compassionate with yourself, you will continue to heal.
During the holiday season, don’t be afraid to express your feelings of grief. Ignoring your grief won’t make the pain go away and talking about it openly often makes you feel better. Find caring friends and relatives who will listen—without judging you. They will help make you feel understood.
Feelings of loss will probably leave you fatigued. Your low energy level may naturally slow you down. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. And lower your own expectations about being at your peak during the holiday season.
You may already feel stressed, so don’t overextend yourself. Avoid isolating yourself, but be sure to recognize the need to have special time for yourself. Realize also that merely “keeping busy” won’t distract you from your grief, but may actually increase stress and postpone the need to talk out thoughts and feelings related to your grief.
Identify those friends and relatives who understand that the holiday season can increase your sense of loss and who will allow you to talk openly about your feelings. Find those persons who encourage you to be yourself and accept your feelings—both happy and sad.
Include the person’s name in your holiday conversation. If you are able to talk candidly, other people are more likely to recognize your need to remember that special person who was an important part of your life.
Well-meaning friends and family often try to prescribe what is good for you during the holidays. Instead of going along with their plans, focus on what you want to do. Discuss your wishes with a caring, trusted friend. Talking about these wishes will help you clarify what it is you want to do during the holidays. As you become aware of your needs, share them with your friends and family.
Decide which family traditions you want to continue and which new ones you would like to begin. Structure your holiday time. This will help you anticipate activities, rather than just reacting to whatever happens. Getting caught off guard can create feelings of panic, fear and anxiety during the time of the year when your feelings of grief are already heightened. As you make your plans, however, leave room to change them if you feel it is appropriate.
Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved. And holidays always make you think about times past. Instead of ignoring these memories, share them with your family and friends. Keep in mind that memories are tinged with both happiness and sadness. If your memories bring laughter, smile. If your memories bring sadness, then it’s all right to cry. Memories that were made in love—no one can ever take them away from you.
Spend time thinking about the meaning and purpose of your life. The death of someone loved created opportunities for taking inventory of your life—past, present and future. The combination of a holiday and a loss naturally results in looking inward and assessing your individual situation. Make the best use of this time to define the positive things in life that surround you.
During the holidays, you may find a renewed sense of faith or discover a new set of beliefs. Associate with people who understand and respect your need to talk about these beliefs. If your faith is important, you may want to attend a holiday service or special religious ceremony.
As you approach the holidays, remember: grief is both a necessity and a privilege. It comes as a result of giving and receiving love. Don’t let anyone take your grief away. Love yourself. Be patient with yourself. And allow yourself to be surrounded by loving, caring people.
This article is a contribution of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who has been recognized as one of North America’s leading death educators and grief counselors. His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been translated into many languages. Well respected for his inspiring teaching ability, Dr. Wolfelt is a past recipient of the Association for Death Education Death Educator Award. He is known around the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing as well as his companioning philosophy of grief care.