• Grief & The Holidays

    The reality of your grief is that what has been lost cannot be restored no matter what anyone says, no matter what you or anyone else does. Grief can be one of the most distressing times in your life. Everything in your life is different now and the world you had and expected to have now has a gaping hole in it. You are now expected to live your life in what is called a “new normal.” Everyday you are assaulted by reminders that your loved one is gone. It can be their empty seat at the breakfast table, not being able to talk to your loved one, or not caregiving for them anymore. My advice to grievers is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. The same advice applies to surviving the holidays, anniversaries, or birthdays especially the first year without your loved one; there is no right or wrong way to observe with holidays.

    The “year of firsts” without your loved one will be one that you have to actively and consciously navigate as much as you can. Of course there will be “minefields” of unexpected things that will trigger your grief. The way you cope with all of these individual experiences will be as individual as you are. As I said before, there is no right or wrong way to grieve because the relationship with your loved one left its “mark” on you. Traditionally holidays are time spent with our families and loved ones. Holidays are special times that we share together and represent different meanings to each of us. But since one of the people that you love the most is gone, how are you expected to be able to enjoy the holidays and cope with holidays? That empty chair at the holiday dining table or that special thing that your loved one did is even more of a painful reminder that they are gone. Your grief may feel sadder and your loneliness may be deeper during the holidays. The need for support may be greatest during these times.

    Your loved one also had relationships with others and they left a “mark” in their life. You might ask other family members and friends how they would like to plan the day/holidays. Encourage the conversation and allow room for resistance or even refusal; this is a way to gauge how the people in your life are feeling about the holidays as well. You can also gauge where they are in their grief process. You may all be able to incorporate elements of what each persons vision of the holidays may look like. Family gathering ideas could be: saying a prayer before a meal, lighting a candle in memory of your loved one, including their favorite dish in the holiday meal, making a donation to a charity in your loved ones name, creating a memorial ornament, or putting up a photo of your loved one.

    You may force yourself to stay involved in the holidays as a symbol of life continuing on, creating time to spend with loved ones and to not feel so alone in your grief. The holidays may still be a time for you to find meaning. You may find it difficult to not observe the holidays but you don’t feel like pretending that you are experiencing a myriad of grief emotions. It also may seem easier to ignore the holidays as if they didn’t exist and weren’t happening this year. But then you can’t stop the rest of the world from playing Christmas music, putting up Christmas lights, and wishing you “Happy Holidays” without any idea that you are suffering from a deep sadness and loss. The holidays may feel pointless, as if you are going through the motions.

    The holidays may be a time and opportunity for you to review your traditions and for you to decide what you want to continue to do and what you don’t want to continue to do. Maybe you normally are a very socially busy person or you cook a very large family meal. For example, one way your family and friends can help you is to bring side dishes if you so decide. Maybe you don’t feel up to hosting a large gathering. You must let your friends and family know if it’s okay to talk about your loved one or not; you may still be too raw. Maybe you could volunteer at a local community event. Maybe you celebrate the holidays on days that are not on the actual calendar days. Or you give yourself permission to skip the holidays this first year.

    I advise that you always have the permission to leave the event and change your mind even if you just got to someone’s house or even if you planned the whole holiday event. You have that permission because there may not be others living in grief state like you. Others may join in your plans but remember they are allowed to express their grief as well. They deserve the right to decline and to not participate. As I said before: everyone grieves differently. Holidays may be a place sadness, tempers and old issues can resurface. Grief and death does not always bring out the best in each other, ourselves, bring up old wounds and our “coping skills” are not readily accessed by our grieving brain.

    The holidays are a part of your human grief journey. They holidays are usually sad but you may find that you find yourself feeling okay one moment, feel yourself laughing or smiling from a fond memory the next. Whatever emotions you do experience, please remember that your emotions don’t take a holiday. And whatever you decide to do or not to do, pace yourself, and check in with your heart and spirit about what you need at any given moment. Please be gentle with yourself and protect yourself from judgement of the “what you should do’s”. Grief is not easy. Most likely no holiday event usually before your loved one died went perfectly. You may feel that you may never enjoy the holidays again and they certainly will never be the same as they were. However, in time most people are able to find meaning again in holiday traditions in the same or old forms as the holiday spirit returns.

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    Holly L. Speaks, MSW is a local psychotherapist who specializes in bereavement and couples counseling, serving the Montrose, Colorado and surrounding areas such as Olathe, Ridgway, and Telluride, Colorado. Ms. Speaks has worked for local hospices, local hospitals in rehabilitation care, local nursing homes and child victim advocacy.

    You may reach Ms. Speaks at www.findingblisscounseling.com, holly@findingblisscounseling.com or 970-901-2072.

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